Remember the Maine!

In These Times magazine editorial, March 1998


One hundred years ago last month, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana's harbor. Rival New York newspapers-published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer-seized upon the explosion to stir up war fever against Spain, which was then trying to squelch a movement for Cuban independence. Hearst's screaming headlines railed against the atrocities that Spain was allegedly committing against Cuban revolutionaries. When a correspondent in Havana wired that war seemed unlikely, Hearst replied: "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."

Some historians have credited the New York rivals' sensational journalism with leading the country to war, but newspapers throughout the nation's heartland also helped prepare Americans the way for the absorption of the remnants of Spain's crumbling empire. As a result, the United States seized the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and imposed on Cuba a semi-colonial status that lasted until the revolution of 1959.

Now, a century later, the media are paving the way for yet another imperial foray, this time in Iraq. Following the Clinton administration line, the media spew forth two basic arguments: one patently untrue, the other profoundly hypocritical.

First, the administration portrays Iraq as a serious threat to its neighbors. Indeed, Clinton now calls Saddam Hussein the leading "21st century predator."

But who exactly does Iraq threaten?

Not Israel, whose leaders keep repeating the obvious: that Iraq has neither compelling military nor political reasons to attack. Never shy about exaggerating enemy strength, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nevertheless insists that "the risk of an Iraqi attack on Israel is very low." The mere hint of an Iraqi move against Israel would trigger devastating retaliation, as it did in 1981, when Israeli leaders concluded that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons.

Not Saudi Arabia and most other Arab nations, who oppose an American attack. They do not fear Hussein, but, as The Economist notes, they are "acutely aware of the American double standard that lets Israel defy the U.N. and arm itself with nuclear weapons, but is ready to bomb Iraq for hanging on to drums of anthrax or nerve gas." Al Ahram, Egypt's leading newspaper, expressed the Arab view last month: The American position toward Iraq, it said, is "coercive, aggressive, unwise and uncaring about the lives of Iraqis, who are unnecessarily subjected to sanctions and humiliations."

Not Iran. Hussein has been there and done that-for eight years. Iran is not worried. It knows Iraq has no interest in a rerun.

The second basic argument is that "Saddam" (as the media call him) is evil.

Well, yes, but when he served our rulers' interests, that didn't matter. Ronald Reagan, the expert on "evil empires," and George Bush generously supplied him with arms when he was an ally against Iran. Hussein became "evil" only when Iraq threatened U.S. and British oil interests in Kuwait.

Evil is a handy notion for American policymakers, but it rarely plays more than a propaganda role. And anyway, Saddam Hussein is an amateur in that department. Compare him to other close U.S. allies, past and present: Indonesia's Suharto, Zaire's Mobuto Sese Seko or Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Washington supported them all for decades while they plundered their nations and ruthlessly slaughtered their political opponents. Suharto alone has killed more than 500,000 Indonesians at home and in East Timor.

Fed a steady barrage of thinly varnished half-truths and lies about Hussein's military capacities and political intentions, many Americans naturally support military intervention. The healthy surprise is that opposition is growing. As the administration's February 18 public relations fiasco at Ohio State University demonstrated, the official line doesn't wash. Nor is Ohio State an anomaly. U.S. Roman Catholic cardinals have formally urged Clinton not to bomb Iraq, and a small anti-war student movement shows signs of life. It's just a beginning, but it offers hope for the return of sanity.

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