Media Lens

MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media

February 19, 2003


The Moral Case For War

Introduction - Passionately 'Sincere' Truth Reversal

In Parts 1 and 2 of this three-part Media Alert, we showed the dramatic
extent to which Tony Blair has attempted to deceive the British public on
Iraq. In an earlier Media Alert (February 3, 2003), we described how Blair
had changed his stated justification for waging war on Iraq at least five

1. Proven Iraqi complicity in the September 11 attacks.
2. Iraqi refusal to readmit UN weapons inspectors.
3. Discovery of undeclared Iraqi WMD by weapons inspectors.
4. Proven Iraqi links with terrorist organisations.
5. Iraqi failure to be sufficiently 'proactive' in cooperating with UN
weapons inspectors (regardless of whether WMD are found).

To this list must now be added a sixth, 'moral' argument. In a recent speech
Blair said:

"But the moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for
removing Saddam... Yes, there are consequences of war. If we remove Saddam
by force, people will die, and some will be innocent. And we must live with
the consequences of our actions, even the unintended ones. But there are
also consequences of 'stop the war'. There will be no march for the victims
of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly
every year under his rule, no righteous anger over the torture chambers
which if he is left in power, will remain in being..." ('The price of my
conviction', The Observer, February 16, 2003)

One might almost imagine that Blair's latest resort to a 'moral' case is an
attempt at black humour. In reality there have of course been any number of
protests about "the thousands of children that die needlessly every year" in
Iraq. We at Media Lens have ourselves participated in demonstrations outside
Downing Street. Moreover, these protests have been directed not at the Iraqi
regime but at the British government.

Blair's mention of needless Iraqi deaths is a reference to the mass death of
children under sanctions reported by the UN, human rights groups and aid
agencies. In a recent Newsnight interview Blair argued that "because of the
way he [Saddam] implements those sanctions" they are "actually a pretty
brutal policy against the Iraqi people". (BBC2, Newsnight Special, February
6, 2003)

Though you wouldn't know it from the media's response to Blair's claim, this
assertion has been dismissed by the very people who set up and ran the
sanctions programme in Iraq. To glance even briefly at the facts is to find
that Blair is once again employing his favoured strategy - passionately
'sincere' truth reversal.

Effectively Terminated - The US/UK Genocide In Iraq

To understand the impact of sanctions, we need to recognise the scale of the
destruction wreaked on Iraq by the 88,500 tons of allied bombs dropped
during the Gulf War. Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a
Harvard study team, reported that the allied bombardment "effectively
terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq - electricity, water,
sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care". (Quoted, Mark
Curtis, 'The Ambiguities of Power - British Foreign Policy since 1945', Zed
Books, 1995, pp.189-190)

The restriction of resources as a result of sanctions has made the
large-scale reconstruction of this infrastructure impossible. In March 1999
an expert 'Humanitarian Panel' convened by the Security Council concluded
the UN's 'oil-for-food' programme could not meet the needs of the Iraqi
people, "regardless of the improvements that might be brought about in the
implementation of" the relief programme. (Quoted, Voices in the Wilderness
website, March 2002:

The Panel continued:

"Regardless of the improvements that might be brought about - in terms of
approval procedures, better performance by the Iraqi Government, or funding
levels - the magnitude of the humanitarian needs is such that they cannot be
met within the context of [the oil-for-food programme]... Nor was the
programme intended to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people... Given the
present state of the infrastructure, the revenue required for its
rehabilitation is far above the level available under the programme." (ibid)

Their conclusion:

"The humanitarian situation in Iraq will continue to be a dire one in the
absence of a sustained revival of the Iraqi economy which in turn cannot be
achieved solely through remedial humanitarian efforts."

Nevertheless, the British and US Governments have continued to claim that
mass death in Iraq is the result, not of wrecked infrastructure, lack of
funds, and an economy stalled by sanctions, but is the responsibility of an
Iraqi regime that has cruelly withheld foodstuffs and medicines from its own

In March 2000, we asked former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Denis
Halliday - who set up and ran the UN's 'oil for food' programme in Iraq - if
there was any truth in the US/UK governments' assertion that Saddam had
blocked the benefits of 'oil for food'. We quoted a letter by Peter Hain,
Minister of State, to the New Statesman in 2000. Hain wrote:

"The 'oil for food' programme has been in place for three years... The Iraqi
people have never seen the benefits they should have."

This was Halliday's response:

"There's no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has
reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by
the government in Baghdad. We have 150 observers on the ground in Iraq. Say
a wheat shipment comes in from god knows where, in Basra, they follow the
grain to some of the mills, they follow the flour to the 49,000 agents that
the Iraqi government employs for this programme, then they follow the flour
to the recipients and even interview some of the recipients - there is no
evidence of diversion of foodstuffs whatever +ever+ in the last two years.
The Secretary-General would have reported that." (David Edwards, Interview
with Denis Halliday, March 2000,

We asked Halliday about the issue of medical supplies. In January 1999,
George Robertson, then defence secretary, had said, "Saddam Hussein has in
warehouses $275 million worth of medicines and medical supplies which he
refuses to distribute." Halliday responded:

"We have had problems with medical drugs and supplies, there have been
delays there. There are several good reasons for that. One is that often the
Iraqi government did some poor contracting; so they contracted huge orders -
$5 million of aspirins or something - to some small company that simply
couldn't do the job and had to re-tool and wasted three, four, five months
maybe. So that was the first round of mistakes. But secondly, the Sanctions
Committee weighed in and they would look at a package of contracts, maybe
ten items, and they would deliberately approve nine but block the tenth,
knowing full well that without the tenth item the other nine were of no use.
Those nine then go ahead - they're ordered, they arrive - and are stored in
warehouses; so naturally the warehouses have stores that cannot in fact be
used because they're waiting for other components that are blocked by the
Sanctions Committee."

We asked Halliday what he thought the motive was behind blocking the one
item out of ten:

"Because Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played
games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years - it's a
deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities
involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass
destruction, this is just nonsense. That's why I've been using the word
'genocide', because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of
Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view at this late stage."

The British government claims that Saddam is using the money from the 'oil
for food' programme for anything other than food. Peter Hain, for example,
stated: "Over $8 billion a year should be available to Iraq for the
humanitarian programme - not only for foods and medicines, but also clean
water, electricity and educational material. No one should starve." Halliday

"Of the $20 billion that has been provided through the 'oil for food'
programme, about a third, or $7 billion, has been spent on UN 'expenses',
reparations to Kuwait and assorted compensation claims. That leaves $13
billion available to the Iraqi government. If you divide that figure by the
population of Iraq, which is 22 million, it leave some $190 per head of
population per year over 3 years - that is pitifully inadequate."

Both Halliday and his successor Hans von Sponeck resigned from long careers
with the UN insisting that Western sanctions policy was "genocidal" -
resignations that were unprecedented in the UN at such a senior level - but
the media almost completely ignored them. Last time we checked, Halliday,
for example, had never been mentioned in the Observer.

Blair can make his outrageous case for a 'moral war' now because journalists
have long ignored reports from groups like Save the Children Fund UK, which
has described the economic sanctions against Iraq as "a silent war against
Iraq's children". (Quoted, Voices in the Wilderness UK, March 2002:

The Catholic Relief Agency, CAFOD, has described the sanctions as "humanly
catastrophic, morally indefensible and politically ineffective. They are a
failed policy and must be changed". (Milan Rai, War On Iraq, Verso, 2002,

Human Rights Watch has said: "the continued imposition of comprehensive
economic sanctions is undermining the basic rights of children and the
civilian population generally" and "the [Security] Council must recognise
that the sanctions have contributed in a major way to persistent
life-threatening conditions in the country". (August 2000,

Seventy members of the US Congress signed a letter to President Clinton,
appealing to him to lift the embargo and end what they called "infanticide
masquerading as policy". (Quoted, Philadelphia Enquirer, April 1, 1999)

John and Karl Mueller stated in the journal Foreign Affairs in May-June 1999
that the "sanctions of mass destruction" imposed by Clinton and Blair, had
up to that point killed more civilians in Iraq than "all the weapons of mass
destruction in human history". ('Liberal Apologetics For Imperialism: Paul
Starr And The American Prospect On Clinton's Foreign Policy', Edward Herman,
ZNet, November 21, 2000)

With the wholehearted complicity of the media, the US and UK governments
have been able to blame the Iraqi regime for the suffering. The BBC's Ben
Brown has said:

"He [Saddam] claims UN sanctions have reduced many of his citizens to near
starvation - pictures like these [of a malnourished baby and despairing
mother] have been a powerful propaganda weapon for Saddam, which he'll now
have to give up." (Ben Brown, BBC News, June 20, 1996)

ITN's John Draper:

"The idea now is targeted or 'smart' sanctions to help ordinary people while
at the same time preventing the Iraqi leader from blaming the West for the
hardships they're suffering." (John Draper, ITN, 10:30 News, February 20,

The Observer's Nick Cohen:

"I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose
a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of
thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a
prison state (don't fret, they'll get there)." ('Blair's just a Bush baby',
The Observer, March 10, 2002)

The 'claim', as we have seen, is not Chomsky's or Pilger's at all.

The media has been less accurate and honest even than Blair in claiming that
the mass death of Iraqi children is a fabrication.  The Guardian's David
Leigh and James Wilson, for example, described the evidence of mass death in
Iraq as merely a "statistical construct" and "atrocity propaganda".
('Counting Iraq's victims - Dead babies always figure heavily in atrocity
propaganda, and Osama bin Laden is merely the latest to exploit them. But
what is the truth?' The Guardian, October 10, 2001)

The Observer declared:

"The Iraqi dictator says his country's children are dying in their thousands
because of the West's embargoes. John Sweeney, in a TV documentary to be
shown tonight, says the figures are bogus." (Sweeney, 'How Saddam 'staged'
fake baby funerals', The Observer, June 23, 2002)

In his Observer article, Sweeney cited and dismissed one of the many sources
of credible evidence of mass death:

"In 1999 Unicef, in co-operation with the Iraqi government, made a
retrospective projection of 500,000 excess child deaths in the 1990s. The
projection is open to question. It was based on data from within a regime
that tortures children with impunity. All but one of the researchers used by
Unicef were employees of the Ministry of Health, according to the Lancet."

We asked Hans von Sponeck, who ran the UN's 'oil for food' programme in
Iraq, what he thought of Sweeney's argument. This was his response:

"Sweeney's article is exactly the kind of journalism that is Orwellian,
double-speak. No doubt, the Iraq Government has manipulated data to suit its
own purposes, everyone of the protagonists unfortunately does this. A
journalist should not. UNICEF has used large numbers of international
researchers and applied sophisticated methods to get these important
figures. Yes, the Ministry of Health personnel cooperated with UNICEF but
ultimately it was UNICEF and UNICEF alone which carried out the data
analysis exactly because they did not want to politicise their work... This
article is a very serious misrepresentation." (Email to Media Lens Editors,
June 24, 2002)

No one would deny that Saddam Hussein is a brutal and oppressive dictator,
but claims made by the government and media that Iraqis have always
experienced current levels of suffering under Saddam are not borne out by
the facts. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's Country Report for
Iraq, prior to the imposition of sanctions the Iraqi welfare state was
"among the most comprehensive and generous in the Arab world". (Iraq:
Country Report 1995-96)

In a December 1999 report the International Committee of the Red Cross

"Just a decade ago, Iraq boasted one of the most modern infrastructures and
highest standards of living in the Middle East", with a "modern, complex
health care system" and "sophisticated water-treatment and pumping
facilities." (ICRC, 'Iraq: A Decade of Sanctions', December 1999)

In 1996, the Centre for Economic and Social Rights reported of pre-Gulf War

"Over 90% of the population had access to primary health-care, including
laboratory diagnosis and immunisations for childhood diseases such as polio
and diphtheria. During the 1970s and 80s, British and Japanese companies
built scores of large, modern hospitals throughout Iraq, with advanced
technologies for diagnosis, operations and treatment. Secondary and tertiary
services, including surgical care and laboratory investigative support, were
available to most of the Iraqi population at nominal charges. Iraqi medical
and nursing schools emphasised education of women and attracted students
from throughout the Middle East. A majority of Iraqi physicians were trained
in Europe or the United States, and one-quarter were board-certified
specialists." (UN Sanctioned Suffering, May 1996

The situation in Iraq under sanctions could not be more different. Richard
Garfield, a renowned epidemiologist at Colombia University in New York,
concluded that "most" excess child deaths between August 1990 and March 1998
were "primarily associated with sanctions". (Garfield, 'Morbidity and
Mortality Among Iraqi Children from 1990 Through 1998: Assessing the Impact
of the Gulf War and Economic Sanctions', March 1999)

Garfield noted that, in tripling since 1990, the death rate of children in
Iraq is unique, as "there is almost no documented case of rising mortality
for children under five years in the modern world". (John Mueller and Karl
Mueller, 'The Methodology of Mass Destruction: Assessing Threats in the New
World Order', The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol.23, no.1, 2000,

These facts are utterly banished by a media system which understands that
the demonisation of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime is vital for
justifying war. Also missing is even the tiniest hint that London and
Washington are responsible for the deaths of more than a million people in
Iraq - the same people that Blair and Bush are now seeking to 'liberate'.

Blair is right that sanctions are a brutal policy - they have exacerbated
problems rooted in the Gulf War smashing of Iraqi infrastructure and have
prevented the Iraqi economy from recovering. The solution is not to smash
more Iraqi infrastructure in a further assault designed to generate "Shock
and Awe" on a traumatised Third World country already shocked and awed by

The information above highlights two central features of modern politics:

1) The extraordinary willingness of politicians to deceive and manipulate
the public, even to the extent of reversing the truth.

2) The vital role of the establishment media in suppressing truth and
covering up Western atrocities.

It seems clear to us that if we are to seriously challenge the deceptiveness
of the political system, then we must also challenge the deceptiveness of
the media. Challenging the media is not merely an optional extra, it is
fundamental to releasing the state-corporate stranglehold on public
awareness, and so on public opinion, and so on democracy.

A Further Note On Blair

In 1999 Blair declared a "new internationalism" where "the brutal repression
of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated". (Quoted, Noam Chomsky,
The New Military Humanism, Common Courage Press, 1999, p.3) Literally weeks
later, Blair remained silent as Britain's Indonesian business partner
continued its genocide in East Timor, destroying 70% of all public and
private buildings, and herding 75% of the population across the border into
West Timorese militia-controlled camps, where hostage taking, killings and
sexual assault were daily occurrences. The slaughter was in revenge for the
Timorese vote for independence in the August 30 referendum, and was the
final act in a bloodbath that claimed more than 200,000 East Timorese lives
over 25 years. About this (and the killings from January 1999 onwards),
Blair and the rest of the Nato 'moral crusaders' had nothing to say.
Indonesian historian John Roosa, an official observer of the referendum,

"Given that the pogrom was so predictable, it was easily preventable... But
in the weeks before the ballot, the Clinton Administration refused to
discuss with Australia and other countries the formation of [an
international force]. Even after the violence erupted, the Administration
dithered for days." (Quoted, New York Times, September 15, 1999)

Mary Robinson, the UN commissioner for human rights, wrote at the time:

"The awful abuses committed in East Timor have shocked the world. It is hard
to conceive of a more blatant assault on the rights of hundreds of thousands
of innocent civilians. For a time it seemed the world would turn away
altogether from the people of East Timor, turn away from the plain evidence
of the brutality, killings and rapes. Action, when it came, was painfully
slow; thousands paid with their lives for the world's slow response. It was
the tide of public anger that stirred world leaders to intervene, however
belatedly, on behalf of the East Timorese." (Robinson, 'We can end this
agony', The Guardian, October 23, 1999)

One further example can help us to understand the sincerity of Blair's
'moral' case for war. In explaining his reasons for bombing Serbia in 1999,
Blair declared:

"The principle of non-interference [in other countries' affairs] must be
qualified in important respects." Sovereignty was all very well; but war
crimes, acts of genocide and serious violations of human rights "can never
be an internal matter". (Quoted the Guardian, March 15, 2000)

One year later, Blair said of the murderous war unleashed by Russia against
the civilian population of Chechnya:

"Well, they have been taking their action for the reasons they've set out
because of the terrorism that has happened in Chechnya. We've been calling
for restraint in the Russian action, but this is a fight that has been going
on - a civil war within Russia." (ibid)


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for
others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to
maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor:

Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent:

Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer:

Write to Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news:

Write to Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering:

Write to BBC's Newsnight programme:


Why are you not drawing attention to the hypocrisy of Blair's 'moral case
for war'? Are you aware that the UN and aid agencies have reported that
sanctions, not the Iraqi regime, are responsible for the mass death of
civilians in Iraq under sanctions? In March 1999 an expert 'Humanitarian
Panel' convened by the Security Council concluded on the UN's 'oil-for-food'

"Regardless of the improvements that might be brought about - in terms of
approval procedures, better performance by the Iraqi Government, or funding
levels - the magnitude of the humanitarian needs is such that they cannot be
met within the context of [the oil-for-food programme]... Nor was the
programme intended to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people... Given the
present state of the infrastructure, the revenue required for its
rehabilitation is far above the level available under the programme."

Former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Denis Halliday, who set up and ran
the UN's 'oil for food' programme, has said:

"Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games
through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years - it's a
deliberate ploy... That's why I've been using the word 'genocide', because
this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I'm afraid I have
no other view at this late stage."

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