Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country. — Nazi propagandist Hermann Goering
It was 16 years ago this month, on March 19, 2003, that U.S. forces began a misguided and illegal “shock and awe” military assault on Iraq. The enormous costs of that invasion and subsequent occupation are all too clear today. Thousands of American soldiers and coalition allies were killed and many more suffered horrific, debilitating injuries; among the U.S. casualties, a disproportionate numberwere underprivileged youth. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died, andmillions were driven from their homes. To this toll we can also add the emergence and growth of the monstrous Islamic State (ISIS). And our Iraq War expenditures—past, present, and future—total trillions of dollars, a massive drain on crucial domestic programs for those in need.
Many painful lessons can still be drawn from this devastating war and its ongoing aftermath. Among them, the tragedy represents a distressing case study in the manipulative use of fear—what I call “It's a Dangerous World” appeals—by disingenuous leaders who insist that disaster awaits if we fail to heed their policy prescriptions. Unfortunately, dire warnings from influential figures can short-circuit our critical thinking and propel us toward action even before we’ve examined the evidence or considered the consequences and alternatives. Psychologically, we’re soft targets for these tactics because, in our desire to avoid being unprepared when danger strikes, we’re often too quick to conjure catastrophe—the worst outcome imaginable—regardless of how unlikely it may be.
These “It’s a Dangerous World” appeals were employed by the George W. Bush White House throughout the Iraq War. They began with repeated claims months before the invasion that Saddam Hussein—the country’s brutal dictator—had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
In August 2002, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney told attendees at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”
Two months later, President Bush presented this frightful image to an audience in Cincinnati: “Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was unequivocal at a December 2002 Department of Defense news briefing: “Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.”
It didn’t matter that these claims were all untrue; they were effective nonetheless. As White House officials had hoped, their warnings and alarmist predictions succeeded in persuading most Americans of two things: Iraq’s dictator had WMDs, and “preventive” military action was therefore necessary. Indeed, Bush knew he already had won over a majority of Americans when he sat before the television cameras in the Oval Office 16 years ago and announced that U.S. forces had invaded Iraq.
After the invasion, when WMD stockpiles couldn’t be found, the Bush administration simply shifted gears a bit. It continued to feed the public’s fears by linking the war in Iraq to the larger “global war on terror.” Speaking at the National Lawyers Convention of the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C., in 2006, Cheney offered this: “On the morning of September 11th, we saw that the terrorists need to get only one break, need to be right only once, to carry out an attack. We have to be right every time to stop them. So to adopt a purely defensive posture, to simply brace for attacks and react to them, is to play against lengthening odds, and to leave the nation permanently vulnerable.”
When debate over the correct course in Iraq intensified even more the following year, the president yet again resorted to “It’s a Dangerous World” appeals. Bush warned of looming catastrophe with public statements like this: “If we do not defeat the terrorists and extremists in Iraq, they won't leave us alone—they will follow us to the United States of America. That's what makes this battle in the war on terror so incredibly important.” The fearmongering didn’t stop when Bush left office. In a 2010 Veterans Day speech in St. Louis, General John Kelly—most recently Donald Trump’s chief of staff—insisted: “Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus, and that is either kill every one of us here at home or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp.”
Today it’s clear that Iraq did not have an active WMD program. Yet many Americans—including more than half of Fox News viewers—continue to erroneously believe that such a program was found. So too, in a 2011 poll almost half of Americans believed that Iraq either gave substantial support to al-Qaeda or was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Neither claim is true. The persistence of these false beliefs demonstrates the staying power of manipulative psychological appeals designed to exploit our fears.
But despite the devastation wrought, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the Iraq War created its share of winners too. Consider the executives and largest shareholders in companies like Halliburton’s former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root; General Dynamics; Lockheed Martin; and ExxonMobil, to name just a few. These corporations garnered huge war profits through no-bid defense contracts, oil sales, environmental cleanup, infrastructure repair, prison services, and private security. Indeed, speaking to defense contractors at an August 2015 private event, the former president’s brother Jeb Bush—who failed to gain the 2016 Republican presidential nomination—explained, “Taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal.”
Sadly, the high-level machinations that produced the Iraq War are far from unique. History shows that fearmongering has long been a standard tactic used to rally public support and acquiescence for military interventions that are both unwarranted and unwise. It has happened many times before, it has happened since, and it will happen yet again—perhaps soon—unless we collectively learn to recognize, resist, and counter these false appeals from self-serving peddlers of war.