Ever since a statue of Saddam Hussein came down, the US media have been covering the occupation of Iraq as a story of faraway clashes and uncertainties.

In the process, the term "quagmire" has become a central part of the American media discourse.

Quagmire is a word made famous during the Vietnam war. The current conflict in Iraq comes out of a very different history, but there are some chilling parallels.

Of course, the nation's mainstream press has not spoken with one voice. At one end of the limited spectrum, the strident Wall Street Journal cannot abide any doubts. Its editorials have explained, tirelessly, that the war was good and the occupation is good - and those who doubt are fools and knaves.

Gung-ho attitude

The journal's editorial writers fervently promote what used to be called the domino theory. The day after the UN headquarters in Baghdad were blown up last year, the paper closed its gung-ho editorial by touting a quote from Centcom commander General John Abizaid: "If we can't be successful here, then we won't be successful in the global war on terror. It is going to be hard. It is going to be long and sometimes bloody, but we just have to stick with it."

But most editorials have been decidedly less complacent. Some are inclined to lambaste the Bush administration for deceptive spin, poor planning and go-it-alone arrogance. A big worry is that the US government now faces its own quagmire.

During the late 1960s, that kind of concern grew at powerful media institutions. After several years of assurances from Lyndon Johnson's administration about the Vietnam war, rosy scenarios for military success were in disrepute.

Survey

But here is a revealing fact: In early 1968, the Boston Globe conducted a survey of 39 major US daily newspapers and found that not one had editorialised in favour of US withdrawal from Vietnam.

While millions of Americans were demanding an immediate pullout, such a concept was still viewed as unrealistic by the editorial boards of big dailies - including the liberal New York Times and Washington Post.

US General John Abizaid

On the same day that the journal was giving Gen Abizaid the last word, the lead editorial by the New York Times declared: "The Bush administration has to commit sufficient additional resources, and, if necessary, additional troops." The newspaper went on to describe efforts in Iraq as "now the most important American foreign policy endeavour".

In other words, the occupation that resulted from an entirely illegitimate war should be seen as entirely legitimate.

A week later, the Times followed up with a similar tone - reminiscent of the can't-back-down resolve that propelled countless entreaties for more effective "pacification" during the Vietnam war.

Articulating what passes for dissent among elite US media, the 27 August editorial cautioned: "The United States will pay a high price in blood and treasure if the Bush administration persists in its misguided effort to pacify and rebuild Iraq without extensive international support."

American media appeals for multilateral policies rarely went beyond nostrums, such as giving the handpicked Iraqi leaders more prominent roles, recruiting compliant natives and foreigners for security functions, and getting the United Nations more involved.

But few outlets suggested that the US government should relinquish effective control of a country that has so many attractive features - including a central geopolitical foothold in the Middle East, access to extensive military bases for the Pentagon, and ... oh yes ... about 112bn barrels of known oil reserves.

Iraq mess

By late 2003, American media outlets were filled with bad news about Iraq. A theme emerged: This administration does not know how to run an occupation.

The New York Times magazine started off November with an essay by David Rieff lamenting that: "The United States is playing catch-up in Iraq." Rieff declared: "The mess that is post-war Iraq is a failure of planning and implementation." His piece epitomised what has been wrong with so much of the media's criticism.

Rieff mainly blamed "the mess" on a half-dozen factors - mostly tactical and bureaucratic - such as "getting in too deep" with Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, "shutting out" the State Department, "ignoring the Shiites" and "too little planning, too late".

Although they might seem to be simmering in the same pot, there is a big difference between a critique that challenges the legitimacy of the occupation and a critique that condemns how the occupation is being run.

Kofi Annan described the war as
a violation of the UN charter

Critics goading and taunting the Bush regime for failing to subdue Iraqi resistance have often seemed to accept the legitimacy of the occupation itself. Yet some questions must be asked and re-asked. For instance: How could a legitimate occupation come from an illegitimate war, which UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described as a violation of the UN charter?

The occupation of Iraq has merited challenge not merely because the Bush administration miscalculated or was inept, but - much more importantly - because militarism and empire are reprehensible.

Widespread US media acceptance of claims that the Pentagon is fighting a "war on terrorism" in Iraq has amounted to a journalistic gift for the Bush administration, which is determined to spin its way past the downsides of the occupation.

Here are the concluding words from Bush's point man in Iraq, Paul Bremer, during an interview on the US network National Public Radio: "The president was absolutely firm both in private and in public that he is not going to let any other issues distract us from achieving our goals here in Iraq, that we will stay here until the job is done and that the force levels will be determined by the conditions on the ground and the war on terrorism."

Within hours, many of Bremer’s supervisors were singing from the same political song sheet:

  • Colin Powell told a French newspaper that: "Afghanistan and Iraq are two theatres in the global war on terrorism."
  • Bush said: "We fully recognise that Iraq has become a new front on the war on terror."
  • Speaking to campaign contributors in Buffalo, the vice president pushed the envelope of deception. "Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror," Dick Cheney declared.

Reporters flee from a wrecked 
tank as US jets fly overhead  

Whether you are selling food from McDonald's or a war from the US government, repetition is crucial for making propaganda stick. Bush's promoters never tire of depicting the war on Iraq as a war on terrorism.

For the public, the mythological link between the occupation of Iraq and the "war on terrorism" remained in play. In mid-November, according to a CBS News poll, 46% of respondents said that the war in Iraq is a major part of the "war on terrorism," while 14% called it a minor part and 35% saw them as two separate matters.

Lack of evidence

Despite the Bush administration's countless efforts to imply or directly assert otherwise, no credible evidence has ever emerged to link 9/11 or al-Qaida with Saddam Hussein.

Now, if "terrorism" is going to be used as an umbrella term so large that it covers attacks on military troops occupying a country, then the word becomes nothing more than an instrument of propaganda.

Often the coverage sanitises human consequences. And clearly, the vast majority of the people dying in the American attacks are Iraqis who are no more "terrorists" than many Americans would be if foreign troops were occupying the United States. But US news outlets sometimes go into raptures of praise as they describe the high-tech arsenal of the occupiers.

On 17 November on the front page of the New York Times, a photograph showed a gunner aiming his weapon down from a Black Hawk helicopter over Baghdad. Underneath was an article lamenting recent setbacks in Iraq. "In two weeks," the article said, "the Black Hawks and Chinooks and Apaches that once zoomed overhead with such grace and panache have suddenly become vulnerable."

Grace and panache. Attributed to no one, the words appeared in a prominent, affectionate note about machinery of death from the New York Times, a newspaper that is supposed to epitomise the highest journalistic standards.

Who is lying?

Ninety-five days before the invasion of Iraq began, I sat in the ornate Baghdad office of the deputy prime minister as he talked about the UN weapons inspectors. "They are doing their jobs freely, without any interruption," Tariq Aziz said. "And still the war-mongering language in Washington is keeping on."

The White House, according to Aziz, had written the latest UN Security Council resolution "in a way to be certainly refused". But, he added pointedly: "We surprised them by saying, OK, we can live with it. We'll be patient enough to live with it and prove to you and to the world that your allegations about weapons of mass destruction are not true."

Aziz - dressed in a well-cut business suit, witty and fluent in English - epitomised the urbanity of evil. As a high-ranking servant of a murderous despot, he lied often. But not that time.

With knee-jerk professional reflexes, American journalists assumed that Iraqi officials were lying about WMD - and assumed that officials such as Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and (especially) Powell were being truthful. Overall, the news media helped to create a great market for war.

Marketing

One author who soared in that bullish market was Kenneth Pollack, the former CIA analyst whose 2002 book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq was a media-driven smash. A frequent presence on national television, Pollack eagerly promoted a book and a war at the same time. He called for a "massive invasion" of Iraq.

Yet in the February 2004 issue of The Atlantic magazine, Pollack had a long essay with a somewhat regretful tone. "What we have learned about Iraq's WMD programs since the fall of Baghdad leads me to conclude that the case for war with Iraq was considerably weaker than I believed," he wrote.

Now we are told that only hindsight has provided us the chance to see how wrong the estimates were. That is nonsense.

Extensive information, poking huge holes in key deceptions, was readily available - but major US media outlets are still reporting as though Bush's pre-war claims were credible when they were made. In reality, any "intelligence failure" was dwarfed by a contemporaneous media failure.

In late January, Senate committees heard testimony from the man who headed the 1400-member weapons inspection team in Iraq during the last half of 2003. Long-time hawk and Bush 2000 campaign supporter David Kay declared: "We were almost all wrong." And: "It is highly unlikely that there were large stockpiles of deployed militarised chemical and biological weapons there."

A week later, Rumsfeld appeared before the Senate armed services committee and simply drew from an inexhaustible supply of fog: "It was the consensus of the intelligence community, and of successive administrations of both political parties, and of the Congress, that reviewed the same intelligence, and much of the international community, I might add, that Saddam Hussein was pursuing weapons of mass destruction."

In the grand tradition of manipulatively farcical commissions appointed by a president to assess his devious actions, a front page New York Times article reported with delicate euphemisms that Bush's new panel will "examine American intelligence operations, including a study of possible misjudgments about Iraq's unconventional weapons".

"Possible" - as though there is still any question about the pre-war intelligence verdicts proclaimed by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell.

"Misjudgments" - as though the White House hadn't summoned any and all pseudo-evidence to rationalise its from-the-outset determination to invade Iraq.

Reckless endangerment

After 27 years as a CIA analyst, Ray McGovern knows a few things about propaganda. He notes that: "The 'investigation' is slated to go past the election. Members will be picked by the president, and the scope is unconscionably wider than is necessary."

McGovern contends that: "The key question is whether the administration's stranglehold on the media can be loosened to the point where the electorate can wake up, take away the president's driver's licence and put an end to the reckless endangerment."

The media war of 2004 is well underway. To the victor goes the White House.

Norman Solomon is an author and syndicated columnist in the United States. His latest book, co-written with international correspondent Reese Erlich, is Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You.