UNDISCIPLINED MINDS

Dr Eric Herring, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Bristol on 9 March 2004.

(The following report incorporates answers given by the speaker to questions put throughout the talk and subsequent discussion.)

The speaker approves of ‘undisciplined minds’, which belong to people who are able essentially to think for themselves, free of prejudices caused by influences emanating from sources of information external to themselves. He acknowledges that such a mind-set is difficult to achieve, but believes that patient industry in pursuing the ‘truth’ and 'education’ (in his words) can help to achieve objectivity. While professionals and academics continuously have to confront and analyse ‘packaged information’ the general public usually has only popular media coverage to provide information upon which to base any democratic control of foreign policy that may be possible. The speaker remarked that even journalists can be unaware of a ‘process of framing’ resulting from the interests of governments and corporations, who ‘seek to keep debate within certain bounds’.

Although he conceded that foreign policy may not be determined by public reaction to media reports, he maintained that accurate information is a pre-requisite for effective democratic control and that people often have ‘disciplined minds’, misinformed by ‘massive inaccuracies’. He suggested some examples. It has been claimed that the Vietnam war was " lost on television", but studies have shown that the coverage was continuously inaccurate and heavily biased and that cost was the determining factor in calling it off. Similar claims about the "CNN effect" with respect to U.S. intervention in Somalia have also been shown to be wrong, since the decision to intervene was taken before the television coverage. He believes that there is a widespread public view that the public do bring about foreign policy decisions, but he claimed that the evidence does not generally support that view.

Questioned on a possible ‘conspiracy’ to allow the events now summarized as "9/11" to take place, in order to influence public opinion, the speaker said there is no direct evidence. He noted however that there is direct evidence of earlier occasions, such as the "Tonkin Gulf Resolution", when it was stated falsely that the Vietnamese had attacked some ships, in order to justify intervention, and in the Suez war, when conspiracy and lies were clearly evident. He did concede, however, that one year before "9/11" the group of ‘neo-conservatives’ who later took power in government issued a paper entitled "The Project for the American Century", within which there was a statement that if there was an attack on the U.S. comparable with that on Pearl Harbour, funds and authority for a war on Iraq would be forthcoming.

Dr Herring had undertaken studies of coverage by The Guardian and The Observer between December 1998 and December 2002 of "Operation Desert Fox" (US and British bombing of Iraq) and of the withdrawal of UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in December 1998. In September 1998 the Republican Congress passed an ‘ Iraq Liberation Act’, when there was both a public recoil in America over the serious social effects of sanctions on Iraq and a view of their ineffectiveness. These factors caused President Clinton to launch Operation Desert Fox, argued the speaker, because otherwise he would have been regarded as too weak a President. Richard Butler, then Chief UN Inspector, has confirmed that the weapons inspectors were told in advance to leave Iraq because that decision had been taken.

A printed analysis of over a dozen sets of studies of amounts of coverage in the two newspapers in question over the four-year period was distributed to the audience and considered. During that period there was no mention of the lack of Security Council authorization for either the inspectors’ withdrawal or Operation Desert Fox, nor of any possible violation of Security Council resolutions. There were, however, 34 instances of explicit and implicit statements that the withdrawals resulted from Iraqi non-compliance, 16 that Iraq expelled the inspectors, and 25 explicit and implicit statements that the Operation resulted from the departures. In sum, over 40% of the coverage in those two newspapers was factually incorrect. Further analysis showed that while left-leaning commentators occasionally were accurate, the specialists were most likely to be incorrect.

The speaker had concluded from his studies that unflattering views of Iraqi government and flattering views of US government tended to be taken as true. Thus even those well-respected newspapers showed an ‘adversarial’ bias. In his view this showed a ‘lack of understanding of how news gets constructed’. To a suggestion that ‘sloppy’ or ‘lazy’ journalists were responsible, the speaker argued that while random errors would normally be expected, ‘systematic’ errors in one direction were in fact occurring over that period. He also agreed that tight deadlines could reduce any checking of assumed facts, but argued that specialist journalists have both opportunity and responsibility to check claims. He acknowledged that fear of restricted access to established channels could inhibit probing, but gave an instance where that consideration had been successfully challenged. The speaker had confronted Jeremy Paxman with such a failure, for which he had received a written apology. Paxman then corrected a public statement by Blair on the bombing/withdrawal sequence, only to receive a reply from Blair that the inspectors were "effectively expelled". Research on widely-publicised "Serbian maps" showing their intentions for ‘ethnic cleansing’, which triggered NATO bombing, now reveal that they were actually German speculative mock-ups discovered by journalists and then publicized.

The speaker devoted much of the rest of his presentation to consideration of misinformation underpinning US policy towards Iraq before, during and after the recent conflict. During the first Gulf War the US public were thought to be so averse to casualties that military strategy was based upon a speedy destruction of military communications through overwhelming bombing, which would greatly reduce battlefield casualties, as is evident in its 'Strategic Bombing Survey'. It was expected that a coup would remove Saddam Hussein from power and the state would remain as before, but under an Iraqi military dictatorship favourable to US policy. Events did not support those assumptions. Before the recent conflict the US State Department envisaged a comprehensive plan to rebuild a post-war Iraq, but during the war the Defence Department decided that after Saddam Hussein’s removal, the regime would survive, but under the control of restored exiles, so that US forces could quickly withdraw. In the event policy again changed radically, towards direct rule, a ‘coalition authority’ and an appointed council, removal of the Baath Party and the Iraq army, a privatized economy and a crushing of any resistance by force. Later, policy again changed when things did not go to plan, towards an accelerated but controlled handover of power, which has again proved difficult to achieve.

In 2000 ‘neo-conservatives’ and Israel supporters published 'The Project for the American Century' (referred to earlier), which included claims that whatever policy might be on controlling oil supplies (assumed to be securable easily and quickly), there was a need for establishing a strategic platform in the Middle East other than Saudi Arabia, which was considered to become an unstable ally eventually. Under the Bush administration later, before war came, it was thought that a post-war partitioned and weakened Iraq, ceding parts of its western territory to Jordan, would not threaten Israel. It was stated that an invasion of Iraq would help to solve the Arab/Israeli hostility and that a democratic Iraq would in fact support Israel. Such an invasion would also help to put pressure on Syria and Iran to conform with US policy and provide a base for fighting ‘terrorism’.

The various policy changes considered occur partly through inadequate information and partly through inadequate analysis. Simplistic divisions within Iraq into Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds fail to note much greater complexities. There are various divisions between and within the secular and religious sectors, the urban and rural communities, involving tribal ties and intermarriage relationships, and not only local rivalries but through links with other countries. There are discrete groups around particular clerics and political parties, militias, etc. The ongoing concerns around the desirable roles and powers of Kurds, minority Sunnis and majority Shiites are conditioned by such complexities. The speaker believes that when policies fluctuate so obviously, the Press tends to have more freedom to examine alternatives and journalists should now be more active in their pursuit.

It is arguable that Iraq policy should aim to develop ‘progressive, secular and non-communal democracy’ said the speaker. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), however, is greatly understaffed and simply provides money and authority to whichever group looks somewhat plausible for its purposes. It often legitimizes ex-Baath Party ‘thugs’ in militias, for example, but because privatization is policy, trade unions are discouraged. The new army is being recruited from the militias rather than from the general public. The ‘war’ concept which prevails, which entails the use of heavy artillery, bombing by aircraft, destruction of houses for communal punishment and the detention of over 11,000 people in prison without access to lawyers or families and the presence of many non-Iraqi security forces, arouses both fear and hostility in the general public.

The speaker argued that a stable Iraq would be based upon ‘participation, accountability, transparency and the rule of law’, but maintained that none is evident publicly or in the CPA, which relies within itself on arbitrary authority. American corporations are free to act as they choose, free of legal liabilities, while Iraqis have no legal redress for grievances against authorities – recently 28,000 teachers were summarily dismissed. Some Baathists, formerly in the secret police, are being recruited, to combat ‘terrorism’, whereas when the army was disbanded overnight they were told that there would be no pay and that senior members of the army and Baath Party would be banned from public office forever. The haste to privatize the run-down and inefficient state enterprises caused the CPA to act with little consideration for implications and with unemployment running at levels of 60% and over, the World Bank has criticized the policy. Questions of legality, insurance and uncertainty of future policy have caused the CPA to suggest a new policy of 'leasing with option to buy'. Against Iraqi hostility, Israeli companies are being brought in and (bizarrely) petroleum products are being imported from Israel. Conversely, fear of a fundamentalist Shiite regime on the Iranian model has caused lack of co-operation with Iraqi businesses.

Although many Iraqis see the occupiers as ‘doing Israel’s job’, as the speaker put it, they think their withdrawal would threaten Iraq’s long-term interests. Reports in the West that suggest that we are bringing order, democracy and unity to a backward people are not justified, however. The evidence is of ‘fragmentation, more danger and loss of civil rights’. For example, Dr Herring has researchers in Iraq who report on many local bodies setting up organizations, in work situations for

managements and unions, in schools councils and other local government services, etc. and none has reported female participation as nominees or as voters. The speaker concluded that there is potential for a progressive future in Iraq, but because the US policymakers do not trust Iraqis to make decisions favourable to US policy and are fearful of civil strife, the transition to self-rule remains difficult. If US policy is to be effectively questioned and changed the public will need to become aware of the real background to these events.

In summing up his views on the need for accurate information in Western democracies as a pre-requisite for democratic control of foreign policies, Dr Herring declared that ‘democracy is not enough’ for him, because democracy can produce ‘bigoted, racist and plainly nasty’ governments. Accurate information is needed for balanced judgments. However, he believes that education and organization can affect political outcomes and ‘there can be social progress’. He illustrated this by reference again to recent history in Iraq. He argued that in recent times overt annihilations of civilian populations have become much less acceptable by the public, although clandestine backing of ‘death squads’ within populations then became favoured by policymakers. Between the two Gulf wars deliberate targeting of civilian services, such as electricity and sewage systems, was discouraged. Sanctions also became ‘de-legitimised’. Overall, some progress has been ‘forced on decision-makers’. He is optimistic that democratic control of foreign policies can be developed by people with ‘undisciplined minds’.

Note: Eric Herring and Glen Rangwala –"IRAQ IN TRANSITION" (working title)- Hurst, forthcoming December 2004.

Geoff Catchpole