Friday 28 July 2017

Fintan's selective facts

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Brainwashing about America borders on propaganda, writes Eoghan Harris.

ACCORDING to an Irish Times/MRBI report, a majority of Irish people would not support the United Nations if it authorised military action against Saddam Hussein. That means Saddam can be as bad as he likes and Ireland will oppose attacking him.

For practical purposes that means we are on Saddam's side. Against the Kurds, as well as the Shias and Sunni parties of his own country who are crying out for war against Saddam and his evil regime. Which I find pretty sick.

As with Germany in the 1930s, ordinary people should not bear all the blame. Most of the blame belongs to the public intellectuals who have been brainwashing us against so-called American aggression for the past 10 years.

The biggest of the brainwashers is the Irish Times itself. Apart from Kevin Myers, almost every columnist drips a steady dose of anti-American sentiments into our already distended veins. Take Miriam Donohoe who wondered why her 12-year-old son was "displaying some strong anti-American sentiments". Now where could he have picked them up?

But this is baby talk beside Fintan O'Toole's fulminations. It seems to me that a public intellectual should throw himself across the path of a popular public bandwagon, not whip up the horses and hammer the facts into the ground. That is what O'Toole did in his last article on America and the war, which was headed 'Our monster good, their monster bad'.

As a polemical piece it stops just short of propaganda and settles for special pleading. Wish I had the space to quote it in full, to subject it to close reading, and to show what a slipshod piece of work it is. But in an effort to be fair I gave it to three third-level students (who strongly oppose an American attack on Saddam) and asked them what impression the article left on them.

They said it left them with two distinct impressions. First, that Donald Rumsfeld had flown to Baghdad on December 17, 1983, with a blank cheque from President Reagan. (In the article O'Toole quotes Howard Teicher, the State Department official who accompanied Rumsfeld, "Here was the United States Government coming hat in hand to Saddam Hussein and saying 'we respect you, we respect you, how can we help you'.")

It seems to me the students were victims of what I call selective omission. Since O'Toole gave no context, of any sort, for Rumsfeld's visit, the students were left with the impression that the United States had sent him to Baghdad from pure badness. What O'Toole does not tell us is that on the day that Rumsfeld flew in, Iraq had been at war with Iran for almost three years, that Syria still occupied Lebanon, where 241 US marines had recently been killed, and that the USA needed Saddam on side.

The reasons Rumsfeld and Reagan supported Saddam against Iran ranged from regional stability to revulsion against the regime of the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeni, whose revolutionary tribunals in Tehran were murdering democrats and modernisers. Back then most liberals were firmly on the side of Saddam's secular state against the Ayatollah's religious fanatics.

The second impression the students got was that America had supplied Saddam with nuclear weapons. O'Toole never says so straight out, but that is the impression left by what I call covert conflation. Referring to a nuclear reactor called the Osirak reactor which he fails to tell us simply and clearly was French, not American, he creates a cloud around America in relation to Saddam's nuclear programme.

"When UN inspectors went into Iraq after the last Gulf War they found that programme to be well advanced. Western leaders knew all about this for the very good reason that their countries were up to their necks in it. As the late lamented American comedian Bill Hicks put it: 'How do we know Saddam has weapons of mass destruction ? We looked at the receipt'."

See how the sentences slide from "Western leaders" to the American comedian, Bill Hicks using the word "we" as if it referred to America? Since O'Toole has never told us flatly that Osirak was a French reactor, it is not surprising that the students felt the article was saying America had something to do with supplying nuclear weapons to Saddam and was consequently hypocritical to make it a cause of war today.

There is another conflation. Consider the following paragraph and ask yourself (a) if O'Toole makes it completely clear that Osirak was a French reactor or occludes that fact by talking about Chirac "supplying materials" as if Chirac were some minor contractor, and (b) if the way the first sentence, followed by a strong non sequitur sentence, creates the impression that Reagan and Bush and not the French were the nuclear suppliers of Saddam.

"The Osirak reactor was known in France as Ochirac because Jacques Chirac, then French Prime Minister, now President, supplied the materials and technology for its construction. The Reagan and Bush administrations in the US in the 1980s pursued a conscious, consistent policy of arming Saddam so that he could become the regional guardian of US interests."

Fintan O Toole's September 24 piece seems to be sourced from a Newsweek article of September 23, whose highlight ("America helped make a monster") echoes O'Toole's title as does the general argument that follows. Newsweek also features Howard Teicher's tittle-tattle. Neither Newsweek nor O'Toole tells us that Teicher left his State Department job in a huff and so is a hostile witness.

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Newsweek however comes to a different conclusion. "America's past stumbles, while embarrassing, are not an argument for inaction in the future". Since we apply the same forgiving law to Sinn Fein in the Northern Peace process, why not to America?

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