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Opinion: What can we believe about the Libyan conflict?

Facts and common sense are the best antidotes to propaganda in war. But they are often hard to find.

Libya propaganda gaddafi 2011 6 22Enlarge
In a picture taken on a government-guided tour, Libyans and journalists gather on June 19, 2011 next to the rubble of buildings in Tripoli the Libyan authorities said were damaged by NATO airstrikes. (Mahmud Turkia /AFP/Getty Images)

ANTIBES, France — "Gaddafi orders mass rapes," "Obama declares US not at war with Libya," "Libya shows civilian site that it claims was hit by NATO."

Can you believe all the headlines on the conflict in Libya?

The answer is “no,” according to Lord Arthur Ponsonby, a British politician from an earlier era. 

Ponsonby published a book in 1928 exposing atrocity stories from the First World War as Anglo-French propaganda lies, including the claim that German soldiers killed Belgian babies. He is still remembered for the quote, “Truth is the first casualty of war.”

Propaganda is one of the oldest weapons of warfare. All countries use it to demonize the enemy and encourage public support.

Remember the story that Iraqi soldiers who invaded Kuwait in 1990 threw babies out of incubators and left them to die on the hospital floor? The American media recycled it over and over again in the three months leading up to the first war on Iraq.

It was only after the war that the American public learned the baby killers story was part of a propaganda campaign masterminded by an American public relations firm and paid for by Kuwait. Journalists and news organizations who repeated the story were too gullible and too lazy to check the facts, which were untrue.

And of course we know how the American public was duped into backing the second war on Iraq by the story that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Still, you would think the Western media might have been a bit skeptical when a story recently emerged that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was ordering his army to rape women. The timing of the story — just as American support for the war against Gaddafi was flagging — should have raised eyebrows. Even more suspicious were the reported “facts” that hundreds of women had been raped and Gaddafi had even ordered shipments of Viagra to be supplied to his soldiers.

Nevertheless, the story made news in leading American newspapers and was carried around the world by major broadcasters including the BBC and CNN. Both the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made public statements that appeared to give it credence.

We cannot be certain the story is not true. Horrible incidents of rape are common in all wars. But so far no one has produced convincing evidence of a government ordered campaign of mass rape in Libya. Russ Baker's excellent analysis gives a detailed investigation of the Viagra/rape story. 

Wartime governments don't always use devious means to promote dubious assertions. Sometimes they simply make bold claims and hope the public will buy them at face value.

The Obama administration told Congress on June 15 that American involvement in the war against Gaddafi does not amount to “hostilities” within the meaning of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. That law requires presidents to seek Congressional approval within 90 days after sending American forces abroad to engage in combat.

Since the NATO air war in Libya began in April, the United States has been spending an estimated $10 million a day to bomb Gaddafi's forces and to arm, refuel and direct other NATO air forces engaged in the conflict. Obama's assertion that this does not amount to making war because American involvement is at a “low level” and there are no American troops on the ground (that we know of) defies common sense.

Many politicians — both Republicans and Democrats — are asking questions this time, and even the New York Times is timidly expressing doubts.

And finally, Western journalists reporting under severe restrictions from Gaddafi's capital in Tripoli are reporting that the crude propaganda of NATO's enemy is sometimes at least partially true. They have been taken to bombed out buildings to see the civilian casualties that are inevitable in a campaign of sustained air attacks against military targets that are situated close to population centers.

Facts and common sense are the best antidotes to propaganda. Unfortunately, journalists sometimes seem to have a shortage of both in times of war.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/opinion/110621/libya-conflict-media-gaddafi-propaganda