13 July 2003
Waiting for the Tooth Fairy
By Gwynne Dyer
Every night when they go to bed, just after they’ve said their prayers, US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair each tuck a tooth under their pillows. They’ve been good boys and they won their war fair and square, so surely one of these days the tooth fairy will come and leave some Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in its place. But the days turn into weeks and months, and still the tooth fairy doesn’t come.
Meanwhile, the crowd outside is getting ugly — especially in Britain, where Blair’s credibility has been severely damaged by the perception that he distorted what the intelligence services actually said about the alleged threat from Iraq in order to manufacture a case for following the United States into war. Public outrage in the United States is still at an earlier stage and will probably only grow in step with mounting American casualties in occupied Iraq, but some awkward questions are being asked at last.
So one cheer for the fact that (some of) the truth is finally coming out, but where were all these newspapers and politicians in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq? You had to be wilfully blind not to know at the time what they are now discovering in such breathless shock — that the US and British governments were telling brazen lies in order to manipulate their peoples into supporting the war.
Even now, the new doubters confine themselves to specific issues like Tony Blair’s claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes and George Bush’s reference to (forged) documents about alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa. In both cases, the official defence has been to blame the intelligence services for the false information (which is a fine reward for serving up the conclusions that the governments wanted). But never mind the details: the whole story was incredible.
Why would anybody in their right mind have believed that the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme, completely dismantled by United Nations arms inspectors in the early 90s, could have revived since the UN teams were withdrawn in 1998 despite sanctions, and have advanced so fast that it already posed an urgent threat to America and Britain by 2003? How did thousands of journalists swallow the story that Iraqi nuclear weapons were a threat so urgent that they justified defying the UN, aborting the renewed inspection process, and launching a ‘preventive war’?
Disbelieving such a fantastical story was not an ideological choice; it was just common sense. As for chemical and biological weapons, it turns out that Saddam Hussein was telling the truth when he said Iraq had destroyed them all in 1991-92, but it wouldn’t have mattered much if he had been lying. He had no delivery vehicles to get them beyond his immediate neighbourhood if they had existed, nor were terrorists going to deliver them for him. Quite apart from the lack of a plausible motive for such an attack, there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had ever had any connection with Islamist terrorism. Three months after the war, there still isn’t.
And by the way, any journalist with decent contacts in Washington or London would have been aware that for most of the past year people high up in the intelligence world were desperately signalling from behind the curtain that the story being peddled by their political masters was not what the professionals really believed at all. The CIA and MI5 were leaking on an Amazonian scale — it was practically coming out by listserve — but the leaks just weren’t being followed up by most of the mainstream US and British media. Why not?
The whole cover story to justify the invasion of Iraq was ridiculous, nonsensical, patently untrue — and occasionally very funny, like the tale of the balsa-wood drones with which Saddam Hussein was going to spray us all with poison gas. So the real question, once again: why did most US and British media, including serious newspapers like the Washington Post and the London Times, treat this farrago of transparent misrepresentations as serious news?
In the United States it’s mostly down to post-9/11 chill: most American journalists were reluctant to question their government’s truthfulness in a perceived time of crisis. Dissent was widely seen as unpatriotic, and so the most blatant lies went unchallenged. Despite the recent flurry of reporting on the bogus uranium purchase that featured in Bush’s eve-of-war speech, this chill still restricts the range and tone of stories in the US media, and will probably continue to do so unless the aftermath in Iraq gets completely out of hand.
In Britain it was always more nuanced. Of the eight daily national papers, only the five whose owners have strong North American ties and large interests there — the ex-Australian Rupert Murdoch (now a US citizen to get around US media ownership laws), and the ex-Canadian Conrad Black (who traded in his Canadian citizenship for a British title) — blindly supported the Bush-Blair line. British-owned papers and the BBC were more doubtful from the start, and by now the rest of the media has been forced to follow suit: the story is just too big to ignore.
It’s impossible to say if the progressive unravelling of the lies will ultimately ruin Mr Bush or Mr Blair: they are both adroit politicians who know how to turn the public’s short attention span to their advantage. But the tooth fairy is clearly not going to show up — and the truth fairy is on her way at last.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Even now…incredible”; and “The whole…news”)