Watching Propaganda Become Truth

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In 1961, I returned from the Soviet Union with a collection of propaganda posters. I used the posters to illustrate to students how government in a closed society can substitute propaganda for fact.

The most dramatic poster in my collection depicts a fascist who has climbed the upraised arm of the Statue of Liberty. A fiery torch in the fascist’s hand overlays the stone torch in Liberty’s hand, sending forth the flames of war. Bombs are falling on dark-skinned, white-robed Arab women and children.

This was Soviet propaganda’s portrait of the attempt in 1956 by Britain, France and Israel to reclaim from Egypt the Suez Canal, an effort that would have succeeded but for President Eisenhower’s intervention. The Soviet Union was not about to credit the United States for stopping the invasion.

Looking at the colorful poster, one is struck that a half century later events have turned propaganda into truth. American bombs have been falling on Arabs, killing thousands.

The entire world now knows that the reason Bush and Blair gave for invading Iraq was false. The invasion was a strategic blunder. It has created new enemies for America throughout the Muslim world, and perhaps beyond.

In The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson concludes his history of the First World War: “It was nothing less than the greatest error in modern history.” Is Bush’s invasion of Iraq the second greatest error in modern history? Has Bush set into motion the unification of hundreds of millions of Muslims under religious leaders?

Michael Polanyi wrote that World War I destroyed Europe. He did not mean merely the destruction of buildings and an entire generation. He meant the war destroyed European culture. After the senseless slaughter, the values rang hollow. Commitments lost their meaning. From the ashes rose Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. With them came alien doctrines that almost extinguished European civilization in the 20th century.

A newly released Heritage Foundation report on the dangers of a dirty bomb brings two questions to mind: (1) why have we so carelessly created enemies motivated to release radioactivity in our cities, and (2) will we see our culture destroyed as we become a police state in a vain attempt to forestall terrorist acts?

Recreating the ancient state of Israel after thousands of years was an audacious act requiring godlike diplomacy. But force took diplomacy’s place. As force has intensified, objections to Israel have mounted. The United States has foolishly spent $200 billion creating new enemies for itself and Israel by invading Iraq. Imagine what this enormous sum could have achieved by ensuring the prosperity of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Peace is always cheaper than war.

As we are belatedly learning in Iraq, there are no easy military solutions to terrorism. If there were, Israelis would have achieved security many years ago. Terrorism requires that grievances be acknowledged and addressed. This requires humility. Jacobin arrogance merely stirs the pot. If we keep stirring the pot, we are going to become the least safe people on earth, living in fear not only of terrorists, but also of our own police state.

Bush and Blair diminish themselves daily with their continuing insistence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. It is as if they are reincarnations of Lord Curzon, British viceroy of India.

A century ago, Curzon convinced himself that Tibet was filled with Russians and Russian weapons, and had become a threat to British India. Curzon sent off an invasion force that managed to slaughter several hundred Tibetans but failed to find any Russians or weapons. By humiliating the hitherto impenetrable mysterious country, Curzon opened the door for the Chinese. In the same way, Bush’s invasion of Iraq has flung open the door for terrorism.

Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.

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