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Premature Launch

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The administration launched its first PR blitz against Iraq on March 11, 2002, exploiting the six-month anniversary of 9/11. But the launch failed. Someone must have feared that the blitz would raise questions about September 11, 2001.

The president now says he never claimed that Iraq was behind the attacks of September 11, 2001. But in truth he and his administration, in an orchestrated campaign, repeatedly linked Iraq and Saddam Hussein to 9/11.

It can now be seen that the White House and top administration figures launched a PR blitz to exploit the six-month anniversary of 9/11 to get war with Iraq. On March 11, 2002, exactly six months after the sad day, as administration figures reminded the world in a series of staged settings, the administration moved Iraq onto the showtime marquee.

Fanning out on March 11, the president held a ceremonial press opportunity at the White House, the vice president appeared jointly with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, and the Secretary of Defense attacked Iraq at Arlington National Cemetery. Iraq was obtruded on the public notice at the press daily briefing at State and in appearances by Senators McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lieberman (D-Conn.). Sympathetic stories appeared in media outlets, and rightwing Washington think tanks supported the whole effort, as did most Republican office holders except Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas).

There was no subtlety about the Iraq bashing or about the implied link to 9/11, by the White House and its allies in politics and in media. Naming Iraq as another front or the next front in fighting terrorism in March 11 commemorations said it all, and the Lexis database shows 300-plus hits for Iraq in transcripts of official observances or news reports over 24 hours.

Getting the news cycle off to a rousing though not credible start, the rightwing Washington Times hit front porches with a news article reporting that Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher, downed in 1991 in the Gulf War, was alive and being held captive by Iraq by Saddam Hussein. Bogus, of course, but it had impact.

Then Vice President Cheney, chief point man aside from the president, addressed the nation and the world from London, where he had stopped en route to visiting eleven nations in the Middle East. This was Cheney's first overseas trip as Vice President, and the agenda was consulting with heads of state in Turkey, Israel and nine Arab nations about Iraq. In a highly publicized joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on March 11, Blair and Cheney used the somber six-month milestone as an occasion to mention Iraq in the context of terrorism, enunciating solidarity on all fronts.

Cheney, who at this writing is about to embark on a similar trip, did not publicly call for removing Saddam from office; however, his appearance was widely recognized, and criticized, as showing that the administration planned to topple Saddam.

Back home, bellicose support for Cheney's trip came simultaneously from the Heritage Foundation and by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, rightwing think tanks with connections to the administration and to the "Project for the New American Century" (PNAC), which had supported war against Iraq since 1992. The morning business press was reporting that an alleged refusal by Iraq to let U.N. inspectors enter was causing oil prices to rise. (By the end of the day, reports indicated more accurately that oil prices rose in reaction to administration saber rattling, a point that even oil company execs are now making in regard to Iran.)

Aside from the predictable well funded response, public reaction ranged from unenthusiastic to negative. The hapless Tony Blair, suspected by analysts of being really remarkably dumb, had to deny published reports that Britain had been asked to provide 25,000 troops to help remove Saddam. Britain's Guardian and Independent newspapers ventilated the Iraq proposition and public doubts about it.

On the South Lawn of the White House, George W. Bush hosted a ceremonial gathering of foreign coalition members and other officials. He did not mention Iraq by name, but, also exploiting a somber commemoration of the events of six months before, he issued stern warnings against terrorists and those who harbor them -- the second stage of the war on terror, as he put it. The speech proffered a sustained campaign against terrorists anywhere in the world, including countries where the U.S. had not been invited to go in.

Bush's appearance had been heralded by then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Meet the Press the previous day. As Rice expressed it, Bush was going to put the world on notice that "the status quo" with Saddam Hussein was "not acceptable."

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld commemorated the six-month anniversary at Arlington, where he, too, linked Iraq with global terrorism. On the same day in separate venues, Senator John McCain also mentioned Iraq in remarks to the press, and Senator Joseph Lieberman made clear that he stood with his president on Iraq, also in public remarks.

These and similar events including the State Department daily briefing, where Iraq was mentioned for a change, reverberated through the national media in dozens of repetitions with video clips.

Further ratcheting up pressure, a Pentagon review released the day before proposed adding Iraq to the list of approved nuclear targets. Like the British troop proposal, this one had to be backpedaled, since a solid majority of Americans remains dubious about nuking. The DOD Nuclear Posture Review, calling for placing Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya on the list of nations Bush would be free to nuke, struck a scary chord for anyone able to read about it in, for example, the Los Angeles Times. It was not prominently reported in the nation's capital.

However well supported, the administration did not create a groundswell for invasion. Even the Wall Street Journal disclosed that U.S. allies demurred at action against Iraq, Cheney visit or no Cheney visit.

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Margie Burns is a freelance journalist in metro D.C. with a blog on government, law and politics, and Hill credentials through the Austin-based Progressive Populist. Her articles have appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Baltimore Sun, (more...)
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