Overview of the PR Campaign to Sell the War in Iraq

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The Bush Administration began to sell the war in Iraq to the American public on August 26th, 2002 and continued their highly-coordinated public relations campaign for 30 weeks until March 19, 2003.

The following sections outline the distinct phases of this Public Relations campaign to sell the war.



The time period prior to the passage of the Congressional war authorization on October 10th and 11th was marked by a clear effort to cast Iraq as "urgent" and "unique" threat.

On the surface, Bush's talking points claimed that the country needed Congressional authorization for a potential war because "it is important for the world to see that the US and its allies are united in resolve to deal with the threats we face."

In other words, in order to gain negotiating leverage to convince the United Nations to authorize a war with Iraq, the US needed Congressional authorization first.

A convenient result was that the rush to vote to authorize a potential war before the upcoming November election made it politically volatile to vote against it. Voting against a war framed in the name of self-defense would be perceived as being weak on national security. The Bush Administration also wanted to have less time for their strained evidence to be scrutinized.


On September 20th, the Bush adminstration released their National Security Strategy which claimed the nation's right to pre-emptive self-defense. It said, "America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed."

Four days later, their talking points said "the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs is significant and growing." and that "[Hussein's] regime is a grave and gathering threat to world peace."

Putting two and two together, the Administration seemed to be arguing that any attack on Iraq would be to pre-empt the immerging threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. They would use this self-defense argument as a bait and switch in order to manufacture the consent of the American public and win Congressional approval.


Congress authorized a potential war with Iraq on October 10th and 11th. From this point onward, the Bush Administration never attempted to prove to the diplomatic community that Iraq was a threat that needed to be pre-empted.

Instead the US tried to argue that Saddam was not complying with the UN, and that the US already had authorization for a military intervention from previous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

Non-compliance was their only threshold for war, and providing evidence of WMD to the UN was never a relevant issue for the Bush Administration. The degree to which Iraq's alleged WMD posed "a threat" to anyone was never legislated at the UN in any way, but that didn't stop the Bush Administration from continuing to push the "urgent threat" argument to the American public.

The US legal theory argues that nothing should stop the US from invading Iraq after Congress approved the war. The only reason why the US drive towards war was slowed down was because Britain actually initially disagreed with the US legal theory. Their attorney general eventually changed his legal advice, but Tony Blair was more cautious and did not want to violate the UN charter. Blair wanted to give the inspection process a fair chance before rushing off to war. The US needed allies for political cover, and so they tolerated the UN process for political reasons.

The international community was only interested in actionable intelligence leading to WMD, and any US claims of the alleged links to al Qaeda or claims or the urgency of the alleged threat was solely for domestic consumption.

The Bush Administration used a completely different set of justifications for war with the international community, but the US mainstream media never pointed out the contradictions and never made any clear distinctions between the two sets of arguments.


Congress approved the war on October 10th and 11th and the sniper case was breaking out and captivating the US media and the American public. During this time period, there was a fierce eight-week debate over the wording over a United Nations Security Council resolution that was to set the conditions for weapons inspections returning to Iraq.

Bush was pushing for extremely aggressive wording that would give the United States the right to invade Iraq whenever they unilaterally decided that Iraq had violated the contrived conditions set by the UN.

The Bush Administration's talking points said that it is really important that the resolution "makes clear that what is required is nothing less than full compliance with all UNSC resolutions," "sets a relatively short time for compliance" and "makes clear the potential consequences if the regime fails to act."

A draft of the resolution was leaked to the New York Times, and a close reading indicated that the Bush Administration was more interested in creating a pretext for war rather than creating an environment where the inspectors could actually find and disarm the alleged WMD. Progressives and other diplomats indicated that the United States was trying to load the resolution with hidden triggers for war.

It became evident to anyone who was ignoring the DC sniper coverage and paying attention to the debates over UNSC resolution 1441 that the United States desired a multilateral fig leaf for their pre-determined war for regime change.

Although the true motives for war were and still are unclear, many progressives observed the Bush Administration's patterns of behavior during this time period and concluded that their motives were impure.

A surprising number of journalists came to see the war as inevitable, and they did not attempt to blow the whistle on how the administration's behavior indicated that they were hell-bent on war regardless of what was or was not
found in Iraq. The reporters seemed more concerned with stenographically repeating the White House rhetoric while trying to uncover when the war would begin. Transmitting war plans from unnamed Pentagon officials became the most common type of enterprise reporting.


On November 8th, UNSC resolution 1441 was passed and the Administration failed to get the all of their strict conditions and desired tripwires for war, but they got enough of what they wanted in the resolution to begin using the UN weapons inspection process as the trigger for war.

The desire for other countries to remove all of the automatic triggers for war merited a specific reassurance from the United States UN Ambassador, John Negroponte. Negroponte's following statement to the diplomats gives more context as to why 1441 was passed with a unanimous vote. He said, "As we have said on numerous occasions to Council members, this Resolution contains no 'hidden triggers' and no 'automaticity' with respect to the use of force [i.e. 1441 has no automatic authorization for the US to go to war]."

But in the same breath he also said, "this resolution does not constrain any member state from acting to defend itself against the threat posed by Iraq."

President Bush then gave a speech at the White House saying, "The United States has agreed to discuss any material breach with the Security Council, but without jeopardizing our freedom of action to defend our country."

This self-defense argument is a red herring, because it was designed to scare the American public and confuse the American media. After the Congress passed the war resolution, the Bush Administration never attempted to argue a case of self-defense to the UN. The US always claimed that it did not need a 2nd UN resolution to go to war because they already had enough authorization to attack Iraq from Security Council resolutions passed from over a decade ago.

Negroponte and Bush used the self-defense argument in order to muddy the waters and create incorrect reporting that served their propaganda purposes.

For example, NBC's Campbell Brown was on the White House beat on November 8th and reported , "Beginning with the support of only Great Britain, he ultimately convinced even the Security Council's most skeptical members to give him a blank check for military action without another resolution."

Any honest International Lawyer would disagree and instead argue that Resolution 1441 was NOT "a blank check for military action." Campell Brown was not at the Security Council to hear the 14 other dissenting perspectives and she never interviewed any International Legal experts for any of her pre-war Iraq coverage.

However, Brown's characterization represents how the rest of the editorial staffs of the mainstream media viewed the passage of 1441. Negroponte's assurances of "no 'hidden triggers'" and "no 'automaticity'" were almost uniformly ignored and never really explained, and so they disappeared into the collective memory hole after November 8th.

Negroponte's on-the-record promises carried a lot of weight with France and other UNSC members, but the mainstream media failed to include this crucial context in their coverage from November until the brink of war when the Council was debating these issues. The US media collectively perceived that the United States now had the green light for military action and the "Countdown to War" was kicked into overdrive after
November 8th.

After November 8th, the Bush Administration was still trying to maintain domestic support for a potential war Iraq by continuing to imply that military action would be a preemptive strike.

But yet the legal case that was being argued to the UN was one of non-compliance and not one of self-defense. The administration deduced to the American public that Saddam's "non-compliance" equals "threat," but the Bush Administration justified the war to the UN solely on their assertion that Iraq's compliance was incomplete.

The Bush Administration explicitly admitted their sole litmus test and low threshold for war in their December 3rd talking points: "The United States will be making one judgment: Has Saddam Hussein decided to cooperate willingly and comply completely, or has he not?"

This threshold for war for the United States was that Iraq didn't provide verifiable proof of destroying its chemical weapons stockpiles and didn't immediately provide access to scientists for interviews.

Actually providing actionable intelligence of WMD stockpiles, proof of a collaborative relationship with Al Qeada, or evidence that Iraq was some sort a threat to the United States was and still is irrelevant for the Bush Administration.

The Administration argued that invading Iraq was to "secure compliance with those [disarmament] obligations." The US was claiming to be enforcing previous UN resolutions, and so in this context the "global test" should have logically been that the US provide some sort of evidence that these UN resolutions actually needed to be enforced.

The degree to which these outstanding disarmament issues actually posed a threat the US never entered the debate at the UN. And so therefore the United States never attempted to argue a legal case of preemptive self-defense to the UN. It would be a different case if they did, but they did not.

Yet Bush continues to call Iraq "a threat" to this very day, and continues to imply that the Iraq war was a preemptive action. His most famous reference was when he said that "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country" at the 2004 State of the Union Address.

This "permission slip" phrase seems has been so popular and effective with conservatives that Cheney has repeated it over 60 times on the campaign trail.

Bush also immediately jumped all over Kerry's "global test" comment at the first Presidential Debate, and the next day told a rally, "The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France." He also said, "Listen, I'll continue to work with our allies and the international community, but I will never submit America's national security to an international test."

This seems to be such a popular and effective attack that it seems to be worth looking into.

And when one does look at the US legal theory presented by the Bush Administration, then it turns out Bush's own State Department would have to disagree that the Iraq war was a "preemptive strike."

From a legal perspective they state, "The actions being taken are authorized under existing Council resolutions." Although United States characterizes the war as "necessary steps to defend the United States and the international community from the threat posed by Iraq," they never attempted to legislate this or provide any proof of this alleged threat to the UN.

Don't take my word for it, George Washington University International Law Professor Sean Murphy is a much more credible source. He has the smoking gun in his comprehensive "Assessing the Legality of Invading Iraq" that shreds the the US Legal Theory to pieces.

As for the basis for the invasion of Iraq under international law, in the months leading up to March 2003, considerable attention was paid to the doctrine of "preemptive self-defense" expressed by the Bush administration in its September 2002 report to the Congress on national security. That report, among other things, asserted an evolving right under international law for the United States to use military force preemptively against the threat posed by "rogue states" possessing WMD. The doctrine no doubt was attractive to the Bush administration, as it resonated with the fears of many Americans -- in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks by the terrorist organization Al Qaeda -- that at some point WMD would be unleashed against the United States by rogue elements. Yet, ultimately, when explaining the legal basis for its action against Iraq, the United States did not assert that the invasion of Iraq was permissible under international law due to an evolving right of preemptive self-defense (nor that international law was irrelevant).
Rather, the United States asserted that the invasion was lawful because it was authorized by the Security Council. That authorization was not issued in 2002-2003 but, rather, in 1990 when the Security Council adopted Resolution 678, and thereby authorized a coalition of states to repel Iraq from Kuwait and to restore peace and security in the area.

As already alluded to above, a lot of insight can be gained as to what happened between November 8th and March 19th when looking from the perspective of the US legal argument laid out in the March 17th talking points and in Negroponte's March 20th letter to the UN.

The Bush Administration argued that "Under UN Resolutions 678 and 687 - both still in effect - we are authorized to use force in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction."

In other words, the US claims to know that Iraq possesses WMD and that they have not disarmed. This combined with two resolutions passed 12 and 11 years ago for a different reason now somehow allows a carte blanche authority for the US to conduct a wholesale invasion of Iraq to overthrow the government.

While most International Lawyers would characterize this legal argument as being "unpersuasive," it did not matter because the Bush Administration was counting on their legal theory being too complex and confusing for anyone who mattered to seriously dig into it. Unfortunately, the Administration was correct and no mainstream journalist ever really investigated their claims of authority until a few weeks before the war began.

The Washington Post waited until a day before the war began to stuff their the following article on page A16, Legality Of War Is A Matter Of Debate: Many Scholars Doubt Assertion by Bush. Obviously the complexity of the issue could be cleared up by consulting legal experts, and there was no reason why this issue could not have been investigated well before the brink of war.

The editors and reporters chose not to use their critical thinking skills and allowed the Bush Administration to make just about any claim about their legal authority to invade Iraq without ever being seriously challenged by the media.

Surprisingly, the media did not even ask to see the legal argument and so the Administration never even formally released more than a brief summary. If the media would have attempted to investigate and understand the US legal theory, then they might have been able to gain enough perspective to break out of the pack mentality of their peers who were trying to figure out when the war was going to begin. They might have been able to perceive a number of inconsistencies between the Bush Administration's rhetoric and their actual behavior.

Not surprisingly, the State Department has tried to supress any further critical analysis of this topic by preventing search engines from crawling select pages that happen to discuss the US legal theory. (Try following the state.gov links on this page).


The media failed to seriously question the Bush Administration's alleged authority to enforce previous UN resolutions without the Council's explicit approval. This issue is somewhat analogous to the San Francisco Mayor deciding to override the state law and grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

While one may be sympathetic to the cause and the rationale as to why the Mayor did this, it was not within the mayor's jurisdiction to override the state law. The California Supreme Court recognized this and annulled the marriages because the mayor overstepped his authority.

In the case of the United Nations Security Council, only the Security Council has the right to enforce their UNSC resolutions and the United States does not have any enforcement jurisdiction over these resolutions.

However, there is one condition to these rules that the United States exploits. There is no sovereign authority to enforce the UN Charter which means that there is no analogous Supreme Court or higher authority to police the actions of the individual member states. Compliance with the UN Charter is up to each individual member state, and any deviation by one UNSC member can only be punished by the consensus of the other 14 UNSC members.

The United States can essentially do whatever it wants at the Security Council because it enjoys veto power and the status of being the largest economic and military superpower. Other member states fear economic or diplomatic retaliation if they would try introduce a resolution intended to punish the US. Even if the US did violate the UN Charter, there was expectedly no follow-up effort by the UNSC, no debate and no political repercussions for the media to cover.

After the war began, any claims that the war is "illegal" become a semantic or philosophical argument. However, if a spotlight would have been shown on these arguments by the media BEFORE the war began, then it could have lent more credibility to the arguments of the majority of the United Nations Security Council members. It could have also been able to sway US domestic public opinion and could have given more attention and power to the skeptical voices of dissent.

After 1441 was passed on November 8th, the television media really began to treat the issue of war as a question of "When?" and not "If?" The question of "Why?" never went beyond echoing the government line of reasoning. Congress already had reached a majority consensus on a war resolution and so in essence the Democrats and Republicans agreed on the issue. This meant that from this point onward, there was never a critical mass of Congressional debate for the mainstream US news media to cover.

Editors also disproportionately the amount of air time for skeptical viewpoints. The celebrity status of selected politicians or actors merited brief mentions and the existence of anti-war rallies were made known, but the broadcast evening newscasts largely ignored the substance of these dissenting arguments.

The day-to-day coverage was dominated by the government PR campaign to sell the war, and unnamed official government sources consistently framed and spun the remaining debates at the UN. The substance of the conflict was irrelevant to who was with us and against us or when was war going to finally begin.

The US media never really made the distinction that the Bush Administration was making two completely different arguments to different audiences. Bush was arguing domestically that Iraq was a threat to the American public while the only threshold for war for the International community was that Iraq wasn't complying with the inspections process. Or in other words, they weren't disarming the WMD that they didn't have. The media still haven't really figured it out since they fail to challenge the Bush Administration's claims that Saddam was a threat that needed to be taken out and journalists like Jim Lehrer still label the Iraq a "preemptive war."

The details of how the Bush administration attempted to convince the global community that Iraq was in non-compliance with UNSC 1441 can best be summed up from their own talking points.

If Saddam won't disarm, we will lead an international coalition to disarm him.

Saddam must submit to any and all methods to verify his compliance, and his cooperation must be prompt and unconditional, or he will face the severest consequences.

The goal is simple: to fully and finally end Iraq's illegal weapons programs.

The United States will be making one judgment: Has Saddam Hussein decided to cooperate willingly and comply completely, or has he not?

Iraq's letters to the UN regarding inspections show that their attitude is grudging and conditional.

As Secretary Powell has said, there are problems with the declaration. We will be sharing our thoughts on this in greater detail later this week.


The Security Council "made clear this was Iraq's final opportunity to comply. We are very far from that point today."


We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.


UN Resolution 1441 is not about inspections. It recognizes Iraq has been in material breach of its obligations for the past 11 years and that Iraq must come into compliance and disarm.


More inspections and a longer inspection period will not move us away from the central problem we are facing: Iraq has failed to comply.


During these final deliberations, there is but one question for the Council to address: is Saddam Hussein complying with Resolution 1441?


Process is not performance. Concessions are not compliance. Destroying a handful of missiles is not disarmament.


16 weeks after the passage of 1441, the Iraqi regime has not complied and has not cooperated "immediately, unconditionally, and actively," as required by UN Resolution 1441.


The world has a responsibility to address the gravest threat of our time - the nexus between rogue regimes, WMD and global terrorism - and President Bush is determined to do so, with or without the United Nations.


Under UN Resolutions 678 and 687 - both still in effect - we are authorized to use force in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

The Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities - so we will rise to ours.

the American people can know every measure has been taken to avoid war.