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