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Action as propaganda

This article is over 15 years, 9 months old
Bush thinks that victory in Iraq will provide retrospective justification for invasion, writes David Keen, but this argument cuts both ways
Issue 1996
Illustration: Tim Sanders
Illustration: Tim Sanders

The continuing carnage in Iraq three years after the invasion is damaging George Bush’s popularity at home. Part of this is due to publicity around the mounting death toll for US troops. But failure carries a particularly heavy stigma in a context where success has been hailed as implying virtue, and even heavenly approval.

The techniques used by the Bush team to whip up support for the invasion of Iraq are now coming back to bite them in the tail. Prior to the attack, Bush’s close adviser Karl Rove said, “Everything will be measured by results. The victor is always right. History ascribes to the victor qualities that may not actually have been there. And similarly to the defeated.”

George Bush himself said in an interview in August 2002, “We’re never going to get people all in agreement about force and the use of force. But action—confident action that will yield positive results—provides kind of a slipstream into which reluctant nations and leaders can get behind.”

In Britain, Tony Blair was also relying on action to generate its own propaganda. As the late Robin Cook recalled, “In the many conversations we had in the run-up to the [Iraq] war, he always assumed the war would end in victory, and that military triumph would silence the critics.”

Significantly, for Blair “winning” had already proved a useful tool of persuasion and intimidation in the domestic sphere.

Dissent within the Labour Party had been stifled—first in the interests of winning power from the Tories and then in the context of the legitimacy that winning bestowed. As the British writer Beatrix Campbell put it, “The party gave itself up to alchemists who proclaimed that they, alone, possessed winning powers.”

This attitude reflects the importance of what the liberal political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “action as propaganda”. She referred to “the advantages of a propaganda that constantly ‘adds the power of organisation’ to the feeble and unreliable voice of argument, and thereby realises, so to speak, on the spur of the moment, whatever it says”.

Arendt was writing about how Nazi and Soviet ideology worked. But we can see the concept of “action as propaganda” at work throughout the “war on terror”. Since there was no logical connection between the choice of Iraq as a military target and the designated problem (the 9/11 attacks), the attack on Iraq was more akin to a witch-hunt than a policy based on evidence.

The “proof” that legitimises a witch?hunt is typically generated by the witch?hunt itself. Confession under duress helps to make persecution more plausible—Saddam Hussein was told he could only save himself by confessing to the existence of WMD that he did not possess.

But punishment can itself be used to imply guilt. As Arendt observed in the context of the Nazi Holocaust, “Common sense reacted to the horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz with the plausible argument: ‘What crime must these people have committed that such things were done to them!’.”

This common inclination to infer guilt from punishment helped the Bush administration to set aside not only international law but a central tenet of law in general—that guilt should be established before punishment is meted out.

The prevailing contempt for evidence was well expressed by a senior Bush adviser in the summer of that year. The adviser was unhappy with an article written by journalist and author Ron Suskind.

He met Suskind and accused him of being part of “what we call the reality-based community”, which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”.

Suskind relates, “I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too. We’re history’s actors—and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”

This is a path to madness, but a perversely persuasive one—at least for a while. Arendt’s concept of action as propaganda helps us to understand how the wagers of the “war on terror” have effectively taken something irrational (a magical solution to the problem of terror) and through their actions made it appear to many to be both rational and plausible.

But these magic arts do not work for ever. Relying on “victory” to generate legitimacy is a double-edged sword. Arendt herself noted that Nazism as an ideology collapsed very suddenly when defeat meant it could no longer back its propaganda with imposing and successful actions.

Moreover, those who claim that god is on their side may be particularly vulnerable to a loss of popularity and prestige when defeat or stalemate implies that god is more ambivalent.

David Keen is the author of Endless War? Hidden Functions of the “War on Terror”, published by Pluto Press. Phone Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848.

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