War propaganda, Obama style!

Using war propaganda to effect the public opinion in favor of a war of choice

An analysis of the war propaganda used by the Bush administration before, during and after the military intervention in Iraq and a comparison with the war propaganda used on Iran.


This paper discusses the effect of propaganda on public opinion in gaining support and legitimacy before, during and after military interventions in a ‘war of choice.’ The main subject of this paper is the use of propaganda by states in order to introduce a political narrative with which governments can gain public support in waging a ‘war of choice’, even when the political narrative is not based on facts.

The case of the Iraq war is used to support this argument. The main question posed in this paper is whether the US is using the same type of propaganda to gain public support in case of a possible military intervention in Iran. Studies of the US public opinion and theories on propaganda, such as Anne Morelli’s ‘Elementary principles of war propaganda’ is used in order to analyze the current political and military strategy on influencing public opinion in favor of a war of choice.

In today’s globalized world there is a growing sense of a common security that should be protected, which mainly forms the basis on which the political narrative is made to legitimize the waging of a ‘war of choice’. Whether it is the ‘war on terror’, a ‘humanitarian’ intervention or a peace building mission, armies are being sent away to far away places to fight. In order to explain the necessity of such a mission politicians often provide a story that tells why soldiers are being sent oversees to fight a war of which its necessity is not directly visible to the public. These political narratives are presented to the public to influence their opinion in order to gain their support (Moelker, Noll & De Weger, 2009).Without public support a military mission would not be considered successful, as was the case for example in the Vietnam war.

A positive public opinion as a base of legitimacy for a war of choice

But how does the public opinion react to a political narrative that appears to be untrue? In the case of the Iraq war president George W. Bush and his spokesmen constantly focused on a political narrative that in a later phase appeared not be based on facts (Foyle, 2004). After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 the American president started his ‘war on terror’, which became the moral legitimacy of the political narratives he provided for the military interventions oversees. In his 2002 State of the Union speech president George W. Bush referred to the ‘axis of evil’ in which he marked Iran, Syria and North-Korea as rogue states that threaten international security (BBC, 2002). This speech was an example of how the US president and his propaganda machine started to influence the opinion of the public with regard to these states.

This same kind of rhetoric was used against Iraq after the attacks of 9-11. The US president used the sentiments of fear and anger in the public opinion against those responsible for 9-11 terrorist attacks (Foyle, 2004). He focused on Al Qaida, being the enemy who had executed the attacks. But the focus shifted to Saddam Hussein and his government, connecting him to terrorist organizations and the threat of weapons of mass destruction (Lewis & Reading Smith, 2008). The alleged existence of weapons of mass existence and its direct security threat was constantly being discussed in the media not only by the president, but also by his entire propaganda machine and the Republican party (World Public Opinion, 2003). The possession of weapons of mass destruction by the terrorist supporting Iraqi regime was being discussed in the media as a matter of fact, forcing the impression that the existence of weapons of mass destruction is a fact and a direct threat to US security (Foyle, 2004).

The US propaganda against Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction grew into a second phase in which it was not only framed as a direct security threat to the US, but also as the cause and the scapegoat of the 9-11 attacks (Kellner, n.d). In this second phase the political narrative was being shaped by the spin doctors of the Bush administration in order to create a basis for a fundamental ‘us-them feeling’ or a ‘war of religions’ in which the US president used the terms of ‘war against evil’ and the ‘good will overcome the evil’ in order to demonize Iraq and its government even further (Kellner, n.d). In this second phase spin doctors created this enemy vision and finalized it by adding a moral and religious dimension to it (Foyle, 2004). The enemy was not only a terrorist supporting state that helped those who directly were responsible for the 9-11 attacks, they were also executing an ‘evil’ religion that despised the values of the free and democracy loving Christians in the West. This strengthened the public opinion in favor of the Republican plans to wage war with Iraq (AEI, 2007).

Anne Morelli’s principles of war propaganda

According to Anne Morelli’s third elementary principle of war propaganda creating an enemy is an effective method in war propaganda which unifies civilians and contributes to the creation of a national identity. Disinformation can be considered war propaganda as well. It can be identified as the systematic, clandestine campaign of lies aimed to deceive the public opinion (Morelli, 2003). In order to influence a view and to protect that view, governments control the information which is being spread. They therefore use government media or the independent media which supplies news. Through war propaganda governments can demonize their enemies and mobilize their people. In order to maintain their war policy, it is necessary to motivate, manage and even feed the media. Mass media are mostly willing and able accomplices of war propaganda. They can even play a significant role in igniting a conflict (Morelli, 2003).

After the use of propaganda by the Bush administration in the prelude of the military intervention in Iraq the public opinion was made ready to accept and perhaps even applaud a military intervention, even though there was in fact no clear evidence provided to support the reasons behind the attack. When the Bush administration started the attacks on Iraq, the media was continuously being used as a means to maintain the public support. Images were repeated on television of the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down and the Iraqi people enthusiastic ally waving to the US soldiers arriving in their villages (Kellner, n.d).

After finding Saddam Hussein the Bush administration publicly humiliated him on national television by showing images of him going through a medical check-up, while wearing a white T-shirt, with his unkempt hair and beard. By doing so the Bush administration marked this moment as a victory in their war on terror. This was the payoff in the media to provide another impulse in the public opinion in support of the attack (Pew Research Publications, 2008). The way the Bush administration managed the news seemed like a smart marketing campaign that was promoting a new product on the market (Morelli, 2003).

Every country has its own rules and regulations when it comes to the relations between politics and the media. In the US there is a strong interdependence of the media and politics, since the media depend on political organizations for licenses, which makes them more sensitive for the influence of politics and the control of the government (Morelli, 2003). This explains the ease with which the US government can use and misuse the media in order to create a view which is subjective and strongly politically colored.

Iran’s nuclear program: does the public support an intervention?

When considering the way the Bush administration managed the news around the Iraq war, one notices different phases. In the later years of the Iraq war, when more and more independent news agencies reported on the high number of casualties on both sides, the high costs of the war and the atrocities occurred with the Iraqi people as in the Abu Ghraib prison, the public opinion started to alter (AEI, 2007). Especially when the war became increasingly a subject of discussion and research in the Congres, the public opinion became more critical to the Iraq war.

The Bush administration then could only focus on the personal stories of the US soldiers in Iraq, trying to base the reasoning of the Iraq war on national pride and a sense of righteousness, a fight of good against evil and the protection of the democratic and Western way of life. In the meantime the public had accepted the bitter fact that the initial reason of the Iraq war, the weapons of mass destruction, was based on lies since these were never found (Pew Research Publications, 2008).

Interesting is the consideration of the public opinion as an organism which is able to learn from prior experiences. Has the public opinion in the US learned from the fact that their government lied to them about its reasons to attack a far away country and send thousands of US soldiers to war and cause a deterioration of the national economy by spending billions on the military to enhance a war of choice? Would the public opinion be more cautious to accept a similar political narrative if their government were to present this in the near future in support of another possible military attack on a far away country? The answer to this question becomes vital when considering the current relations with Iran.

Even though Iran’s nuclear program started as early as the 1950’s, it was only after the 9-11 attacks that the US and the international community gained a particular interest in its developments. The disclosure of certain nuclear plants in Iran and the fact that the Iranian government was enriching uranium beyond the capacity required for peaceful purposes, caused the Bush administration to push for sanctions.

By also referring to Iran as a part of the Axis of Evil in his State of the Union speech, president George W. Bush demonized Iran further and made his position clear with regard to Iran’s defense and military as a threat to world peace. His focus on Iran’s nuclear program was adapted by media supportive of his administration, such as Fox news, in order to spin the political narrative further. Iran’s nuclear program grew into a subject of distress within the international community and international organizations started taking action against Iran’s nuclear developments (Hassan, 2006). These occurrences affirmed the grave distress already aroused among the public towards Iran’s nuclear program, while in the meantime there is still no proof of nuclear missiles visible in Iran’s possession (Umansky, 2008).

The Bush administration even voiced clear military threats towards Iran due to the fact that Iran would not abort its nuclear program. In the media Iran was being portrayed as a renegade state supporting terrorism, carrying and spreading a dangerous ideology that threatens Western values of democracy and the ‘Western way of life’ (Umansky, 2008). Even though there are certain facts that could support these claim, the focus on these issues throughout Western media and the time chosen to do so makes one see a pattern which is recognizable when compared to the prelude to the Iraq war (Hassan, 2006). Then too, the alleged threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was used as the political narrative to legitimize the military attack. Fact remains though, that until today no proof is found of Iran preparing nuclear missiles, just as there is still no proof of weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq.

According to Anne Morelli wars of choice are initiated based on goals related to the enhancement and safeguarding of political and financial interests. But these reasons for waging war are not very popular in the public opinion. Since wars of choice are only possible when having a favorable public opinion, spin doctors frame the war with a political narrative based on values of independence, honor, and freedom (Morelli, 2003). The frame makes the public believe that the war is being waged based on undeniable noble and moral values. This is in fact the fourth principle of war propaganda according to Morelli and is recognizable when studying the behavior of the politicians and the media towards the Iraq war and the propaganda expressed against Iran.

The public opinion towards Iran had been effected in such extent that the country could only be associated with terrorists and nuclear bombs. The association was built so strongly, that the public was made to disregard the states already possessing nuclear arms in the region, whether affirmed or non-affirmed by the states themselves. The question of discussion shifted towards whether or not Iran had the right to possess nuclear arms, while in fact Iran constantly emphasized that it wanted nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In the US media such reactions of the Iranian government were put into a frame of ridicule and distrust (Umansky, 2008).

The public opinion was in fact being made ready for the next phase of the military policy of the Bush administration. A plan for a military intervention of Iran was already on the table and president Bush was ready to accomplish his final military victory in his war of terror, but due to an unexpected shift in the public opinion towards Iraq, the undeniable deterioration of interior and economic affairs as a consequence of the high costs of war and the approaching end of his administration, his plans for Iran changed (Hersh, 2006).

The public opinion towards Iran and its support for a possible military intervention has decreased, since an increasing number of independent news agencies, weblogs and documentary makers focus on the lies of the Bush administration with which he fooled the public into a war of choice. Their willingness to support another war of choice decreased, regardless of the Republican campaign for a war on Iran. The spin doctors of the Bush administration must have had a hard enough time to frame the unsuccessful Iraq war in a positive light, that reframing Iran as a military threat, just lost its priority position. The Bush administration too must have seen that the public opinion had just learned from the war propaganda his administration had fooled them with. The public would not be fooled twice into a costly and unjust war of choice.

The approach of the Bush administration versus the Obama administration

As there was a shift in the public opinion in the final stage of the Iraq war which taught the public a lesson about the US war propaganda machine, it was no longer possible for the Bush administration to mobilize the public for a second war of choice, with Iran. Regardless of the many attempts of his administration and his spin doctors, the public would not be won over. After the change of power in the White House it is interesting to observe the way president Barack Obama handles the US defense policy and the choices he makes with regard to Iran.

To begin with, president Barack Obama has a different approach to Iran and has other subjects in his interior politics that have a higher priority compared to his foreign policy. Therefore he already has a different use of the public opinion in his first years of administration. With regard to his policy towards Iran, his administration has a more receptive and diplomatic approach than the previous administration. The different kind of approach that the Obama administration has towards Iran’s nuclear program is a perhaps smarter approach than that of the previous administration (The New York Times, 2009).

While the Bush administration tried to influence the public opinion by demonizing the Iranian government and constantly focusing on their support of terrorism and the threat of nuclear warfare, the current administration chooses to allow the Iranian government to dig their own grave. In his first approach to the subject of the Iranian nuclear program president Obama emphasized the need of a dialogue with Iran about their nuclear program, creating an image of the US being the ‘helping hand’ in a difficult conflict of Iran with the rest of the world, other than focusing on the relation of the US and Iran on this matter (The New York Times, 2009).

As expected, the Iranian government rejected any dialogue with the US when the nuclear program would be in question. By this new strategy president Obama in fact respected the intelligence of the US public opinion with regard to Iran and with regard to their possible support to a future military attack on Iran. Since, continuing the Bush war propaganda on Iran proved useless (the public would not be fooled a second time), the Obama administration used a new strategy of ‘using the propaganda of the enemy against himself’. The idea behind this new strategy is to focus on the role of the US as a wise and peace loving country wanting to stabilize the Middle East region for humanitarian reasons. While doing so, the Obama administration does emphasize however that the option of a military intervention, if Iran does not cooperate, is still on the table.

By this ‘decent, but tough’ approach the Obama administration wants to show the public different things. To begin with, that foreign policy is not priority number one, since the American people are the ones in need of attention now first. Continuing the Bush war propaganda against Iran would not only have been unsuccessful but also assume a short term action, which the Obama administration does not want. The second goal of the approach towards the public opinion is to express that the Iranian government is in fact evil, since it does not want to talk, but rather risks the lives of its own citizens in order to continue its nuclear program. When considering Anne Morelli’s principles of war propaganda, these are the first three principle , namely “we don’t want a war..”, “the other side is the one responsible for the war” and “the enemy leader is like the devil” (Morelli, 2003).


This new US communication strategy regarding the Iranian nuclear program shows that the new administration has learned that using the same pre-war war propaganda in order to gain support of the public opinion does not work twice, when the first time it became so clear that the public was in fact fooled into a war. One could therefore say that the current spin doctors of the Obama administration are smarter in their strategic approach, taken that there is still an option of a military intervention in Iran present on the table. It is only a matter of time and interests to find a window of opportunity, in order to wage another war of choice covered with the political narrative that makes the public believe it is in fact a war of necessity instead.

When considering the current status quo and the Obama strategy towards Iran and the communication strategy focused on effecting the public opinion one can only conclude that the Obama administration have made good use of lessons learned from the Iraq war propaganda. The spin doctors of this administration have accepted the learning capability of the public opinion and have become more cautious in their approach of their strategy towards Iran. When considering the war propaganda on Iran set out by the late Bush administration in the final stage of his presidency one sees that the old style of Republican war propaganda was being used. When president Obama came to power the war propaganda shifted and perhaps set back two or three steps in order to use a different strategy of approach of the public opinion. Therefore one could say that when observing the current phase of president Obama’s war propaganda on Iran, it could take some time before he moves the public into the second phase in which they are more receptive to the option of a military intervention. Based on this perception, one has to conclude that a possible military intervention still remains an option. It has perhaps only moved more further into to future timeline, accordingly with the new Obama strategy.

The challenge that the Obama administration then faces is creating a second and third phase in their approach that could take away any kind of comparison with the war on Iraq. It would by then even be necessary to focus on other aspects of the Iranian government, other than their nuclear program, to create a more legitimate political narrative in support of a military intervention. Perhaps the Obama administration will use a different principle of Anne Morelli, namely the focus on the humanitarian need to a military intervention. In this case the Obama administration could shift the focus on Iran’s interior affairs that could be considered a ‘humanitarian issue’, like the deterioration of the human rights situation, the increasing number of political refugees, the many cases of torture in prisons, lawlessness and discriminatory laws against women and minorities. These humanitarian issues could even be strengthened by the use of social groups in society who too could influence the public opinion into accepting that only a regime change would end the breaches of international human rights that the Iranian regime is guilty of.

The fact remains that a war of choice has certain goals that in the first place have little to do with a direct military threat, but with safeguarding political and economic interests. By using a political narrative that is credible enough for the public opinion to support a military intervention, it no longer is important whether the political narrative is true, urgent or just timely and convenient. Based on the lessons learned through the last Bush administration with regard to the use of public opinion in creating support for a war of choice the Obama administration stands strong in reshaping that same war propaganda into something more credible and acceptable for the current public opinion. So as it seems, if the Obama administration would want to wage war with Iran, he has the right tools and a credible alternative political narrative that could open the way for a smart and effective defense against Iran.


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