October 2, 2002

The President’s Scare Tactics

By: Peter Brownfeld

As President Bush attempts to stir up war sentiment, there seems to be no limit to his efforts to scare the American people. Rather than honestly assessing Saddam Hussein as an evil tyrant–which is true–Bush has cast him as a mighty threat who could detonate a nuclear weapon on American soil, or use chemical or biological weapons to kill thousands of Americans–apocalyptic events whose likelihood is entirely unproven.

Meanwhile, polls continue to show concern about a war against Iraq. The October Gallup poll shows that barely half of Americans support such a war, and the numbers drop even lower once casualties are discussed. Just one-third of Americans would support a war costing 5,000 lives.

So Bush has tried to whip up support by scaring the public.

Bush has frequently juxtaposed Americans’ horrible memories of September 11th with Saddam Hussein. It’s a clever trick: Scare the public that Hussein could do such a thing, and by appealing to it emotionally, divert its attention from the need for evidence. In Bush’s October 7 speech outlining the Iraqi threat and encouraging a vote of congressional support, he cited September 11th five times. This speech was Bush’s most thorough description of the threat, though similar statements can be found in Bush’s speeches before and after this one. Typical of Bush’s comments were these: “On September the 11th, 2001, America felt its vulnerability–even to threats that gather on the other side of the earth. We resolved then, and we are resolved today, to confront every threat, from any source, that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America.” By trying to capitalize on memories of September 11th and fear of al Qaeda, Bush reveals that he must use an emotional appeal rather than one rooted in evidence.

Bush has tried to link Iraq with terror, saying “Confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror.” But why would this be true in the absence of a definitive Iraqi connection to al Qaeda (or a similarly menacing organization)? Because, Bush insisted, Hussein may soon use al Qaeda “to do his dirty work.” While that is certainly possible, so are many other scenarios, and without presenting evidence, or justification for this belief, it is just another empty assertion. Bush displayed the weakness of the connection between Baghdad and terror when he cited the terrorists Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas who found haven in Iraq. Those who remember these names are no longer scared of these men. Americans are scared of al Qaeda–show that link and the country is ready to go to Iraq, but Abu Nidal does not provide a commanding reason for war.

In discussing Hussein’s gas attacks on Iraqi Kurds and Iran, Bush said: “These actions killed or injured at least 20,000 people, more than six times the number of people who died in the attacks of September the 11th.” While these were terrible actions, they were not against America, or the West–the targets of al Qaeda–they were against threats to Hussein’s own regime.

Bush continued: “We agree that the Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons.” It is a statement that no one would disagree with, but Bush should explain how he threatens “America and the world” with these weapons when Baghdad has no weapons that can reach beyond its immediate region, and when Iraq has shown no intention or ability to attack its neighbors or America since the establishment of the containment policy after the Gulf War. Beyond this, simply because he has these weapons and is willing to use them does not mean he is necessarily prepared to use them against America. Showing a danger to Americans would be a more convincing–though apparently unavailable–argument.

The climax of this weapons discussion was when Bush said: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof–the smoking gun–that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Yet, Bush has not shown that Hussein has nuclear weapons, the means to deliver them, or even the motive–since a much more crushing counterattack would certainly follow.

While Hussein’s evil character and actions are indisputable, Bush has pinned his reasoning for war on the threat to America–a threat for which he has failed to provide enough evidence. If there are valid reasons for war, the administration should present them and facilitate an honest debate. But speaking ominously about an Iraqi link to al Qaeda and a mushroom cloud over an American city only confuses the most important issue a nation can face.