The game Civilization, by Sid Meir, is one of the most successful video games of all times. Not only does it have a cool soundtrack, but it also simulates the growth of civilization, science, politics and art on a gigantic scale. One of the choices that you have when you play Civilization is what kind of a leader you want to be – a despot that controls his people tightly, a communist head of the Party, or a democratic-elected president. Your choice has massive consequences: a tyrant, for example, can easily force his people to pay taxes or go to war, but his population is not as productive and literate as that of more democratic leaders. A democratic leader has many scientists and artists and merchants, but cannot do what he pleases – his people often frustrate his efforts to raise taxes or to build grandiose projects. Declaring war is also extraordinarily difficult when you are a democratic leader, as the population refuses to go to war unless attacked (and even then).
Many politicians are familiar with that problem. Democracies find it difficult to go to war – wars are very expensive (the current cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan war is more than $1 Trillion, about 10X the cost of establishing a large permanent moon base, for example), and they tend to kill people, neither of which makes democratic people very happy.
Nevertheless, wars are important tools in any politician’s arsenal, and so the issue becomes how can you convince populations to go to war? The answer is, of course, manipulation (but you guessed that from the blog’s name, didn’t you?)
Manipulating a population so that it accepts a war is difficult. Wag the Dog was a comedy about doing just that, of course, but the real thing is often more complex and more bloody.
The simplest way that politicians can drum up support for a war (there are more, but let’s start with the simplest one) is that we were attacked and are defending ourselves. This is a true-and-tried method, although it is out of favor these days as communication systems make it harder to ‘stage’ attacks. But it has had a good run of several hundred years, and it’s still going strong in places like Iran and China, where the population doesn’t have access to international news sources.
For an example not too long ago, let’s go with the Vietnam War. Do you recognize this boat?
It’s the US Maddox. On August 4, 1964, it was patrolling (not really – it was using surveillance equipment to support the South Koreans, but since that was illegal it was on ‘patrol’ in) the Gulf of Tankin, when it was attacked via torpedoes by North Vietnamese forces. When the attack was relayed to President Johnson, he relayed the attack to Congress and pushed for the Gulf of Tankin Resolution, basically giving himself the power to wage war in Vietnam without any declaration of war being issued. This was the start of the Vietnam War, to all intents and purpose.
Why was this manipulation? The Maddox was not attacked on August 4. It had been attacked by a couple of patrol boats a few days earlier, that it had sunk, and the crew was nervous. On August 4th, the crew saw radar signatures of torpedoes, and took defensive measures (including shelling targets). The boat communicated with headquarters, and President Johnson decided to use the incident to push through the Resolution. A few hours later, he took to the air to tell the American public about the attack, and to urge the Congress to give him the power to defend the Maddox and others.
Back in the Gulf, though, when the smoke cleared, there was no sign of any Vietnamese boats or soldiers. The Captain of the Maddox, Herrick, sent back a cable expressing his doubt that the boat had actually been attacked, and that the ‘torpedoes’ were probably just echoes of the ship’s propeller. An hour later, he sent another cable, basically saying again that there was no evidence that the ship was attacked (and since then a lot of evidence has emerged to show that there was, in fact, no attack). But Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary, had a problem: he had just told the President that the boat was attacked and Johnson was using the attack as the platform for war. It was an election year. Johnson was volatile and didn’t like uncertainties. McNamara quietly shelved the reports (and others that indicated that this was a phantom attack), and a few hours later President Johnson ordered bomber strikes on North Vietnam and the war started in earnest.
But can a country be manipulated into a war from the outside?
Well, apparently, yes. One cool example of this one, of course, is the now infamous Weapons of Mass Destruction that was the main driver behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Remember the famous Powerpoint presentation that Collin Powell gave at the UN to justify the war?
Most of the information in that Powerpoint came from a single source, named “Curveball“, a defector that had escaped to Germany and who had worked on the dreaded WMD program. Turns out he was a a congenital liar, a con artist who drove a taxi in Iraq and who knew enough chemistry to weave tall tales in the hope of a) toppling Saddam Hussein, and b) gain asylum in the US. He admitted in 2011 that he lied, although the CIA knew that he lied in 2004, and the German intelligence agency who had custody of him called him “crazy” and “out of control”.
The issue here was not that one liar fooled several governments in going to war. Even in 2003, there was plenty of evidence that Iraq had no WMDs – UN weapons inspectors had ascertained that there were no significant WMDs, and one of them, Scott Ritter, wrote and spoke out vehemently against the idea that Iraq had WMDs (it’s actually interesting to see the tone of the interviews around that time).
So how did one crazy taxi driver push a nation to war?
Meet Ahmed Challabi. He was the head of an Iraqi opposition group (the INC) in 1992 formed to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They didn’t do a good job, obviously, and so Challabi turned to other means. He hired a strong lobby firm, BKSH & Associates, in Washington and began a steady stream of manipulative messages to the policy makers in DC about Iraqi WMDs. Obviously, if the US believed that Saddam had WMDs, they would take steps to overthrow him one way or another, clearing the way for the INC and Challabi himself to fill the void.
So how do you convince a nation that another one has WMDs, even if the intelligence apparatus knows better?
1. Remember “Curveball” above? He was a brother to one of Challabi’s lieutenants.
2. The INC reached to a NYT reporter, Judith Miller, and started feeding her information about WMDs. Remember the infamous “aluminum tubes”? These were meant, clearly for WMDs, and Judith Miller broke the story for NYT and this became another major leg in the “Iraq has WMD” podium.
3. Challabi and the rest of the INC were good at securing links with journalists and others, like Danielle Pletka and Michael Gordon. One of the tricks that Challabi used very intelligently (probably with coaching) was to introduce journalists to other Iraqi defectors who could corroborate his story. Of course, since he was selecting them, it was easy for him to manage the introductions so that the stories of WMDs were always verified and amplified, and journalists fell for this again and again. Often, Challabi would leak something to the White House or the Pentagon days before he leaked it to his journalist friends, who would then get confirmatory noises when they checked their story with the Pentagon and the White House. It was the perfect echo chamber, and several journalists got caught in that chamber.
4. Challabi got media coaching and began appearing as the face of Iraqi opposition to Saddam on television and media. He was articulate and westernized, the very figure of a poised, intelligent, stable leader that the US could pop in place after Saddam was deposed. He was friends with many in Washington, including Laura Bush, and many others. Prior to the war, the US was funding opposition parties in Iraq mostly through the INC, to the tune of $97M, which can buy a lot of influence and friends in Washington.
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Challabi was wildly successful. Much of his success was due to a White House and political party that was intent on war and actively looking for justification, of course, but his manipulative efforts gave the administration a formidable tool and a tremendous ally in the buildup to the war.
When Saddam was deposed, Challabi was installed by the US forces as president of the Interim council, and then his past started to catch up with him. It turned out that he had defrauded investors in his bank in Jordan to the tune of $22M (which is why he fled Jordan to the US in the first place). He was intensely hated by Iraqis themselves and progressively drove himself from power through a combination of strange associations with Iran and fraud and money-laundering. The British intelligence service (thanks, Wikileaks!) describe Challabi as a “convicted fraudster popular on Capital Hill”. Perhaps, but he manipulated the world’s sole superpower in a massive war to achieve his aim – what has the British Intelligence Service done since James Bond?
Challabi is not the only person who has manipulated us into war, by the way. Remember Nayira?
No? Well, you should. She was a 15-year old who gave stirring testimony to Congress after Saddam invaded Kuwait (which precipitated Gulf War I). It was disturbing stuff (how the heck do I embed videos in here??): she reported that Iraqi soldiers had walked into Kuwaiti hospitals, ripping babies out of incubators. Her testimony was the one most cited by Senators and President Bush the Elder when articulating the rationale of war to liberate Kuwait.
So what happened? It turns out that Nayira was not an escaped Kuwaiti refugee – she was Nayira al-Sabbath, the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US, and member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. She was part of a complex manipulation orchestrated by Citizens for a free Kuwait, a group organized by Kuwaitis in exile and helped by a top-tier PR firm, Hill & Knowlton. By some estimates, the effort by Citizens for Free Kuwait was the most expensive PR & lobby effort ever organized – but Kuwaitis had oil money, and were fighting for their survival, so money was literally no object. The head of Hills & Knowlton was Craig Fuller, a close adviser to President Bush. More than 120 professionals worked full time to build support for a liberation war, an unprecedented effort that must have cost hundreds of millions. T-shirts were printed and distributed. Horror stories were circulated in the press. A book was written in record speed, “The rape of Kuwait”, and the embassy in Kuwait bought 200,000 copies immediately to distribute to US forces and influencers. PR clips showing the invasion were produced by the firm and then passed onto news organization, who repeated the clips dozens of time. It was an awesome, awesome campaign.
It also worked beyond anything anyone could have imagined. Popular support for the liberation of Kuwait, a city state thousands of miles from the US that most of us couldn’t find on a map if we were paid to, and which was ruled by a rich elite. The Coalition forces invaded and liberated Kuwait in February 1991.
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Would the US have gone to war without the Hills & Knowlton campaign? Maybe – it’s hard to tell the impact of a manipulation on that scale. Who would argue to stop a war against baby killers? The movement against the war was disorganized, fragmented, and disunited. The movement for the war was run by military precision by a strong team with a terrific network and unlimited budget. Clearly, Saddam Husain had misunderstood the power of manipulation: he had assumed that the world powers would condemn his action but could not drum up support for a war (he was probably a Civilization player). He forgot to take into account the power of manipulation that hundreds of millions of dollars can buy… and then made the same mistake ten years later.