The Media and the War Drive

Against the Current, No. 31, March/April 1991

Nabeel Abraham

WHY ARE THE NEWS media so important? Why should we care about media coverage, how thoroughly and accurately it covers events, and how it frames the issues? Will not events run their course anyway?

In a dictatorship, public opinion is not very important, since coercion is the predominant threat hanging over the public. In a democracy, even a paper one such as ours, the governing elite cannot resort to coercion or even the threat of force, and must therefore obtain the nominal consent and/or acquiescence of the public. This is especially important when the elite demand human and economic sacrifices. Soldiers will not fight with zeal if they are unconvinced of the cause they are fighting for citizens will not readily make the monetary sacrifices and undergo other material hardships.

Thus the news media’s role in a society such as ours: to ensure the support of the majority for the policy decisions of the ruling minority. It stands to reason that the policies of the governing elite will tend to represent first and foremost the economic and social interests of those who own the country—the giant corporations and, generally, the top one percent of the population that owns forty percent of the country’s wealth.

Consequently, the task of the major news media—corporations themselves—is to mold the public mind to go along with the ruling elite’s policies. Noam Chomsky has called this “brainwashing under freedom.”

Watchdog Versus Lapdog

The mainstream media, of course, fancy themselves as guardians of the public interest; the watchdogs of the little guy against power. There is some truth to this view on the local level, although recently the corporate media giants have swallowed up smaller media outlets.

As the discussion turns to national and foreign affairs, the media’s role has historically shifted from that of watchdog to lapdog. The so-called “bipartisan” foreign policy, where everyone agrees on the basic outlines of U.S. foreign policy, includes the national papers, networks, big city dailies and weekly news magazines.

Differences are a constant feature of news coverage, but with some notable exceptions, most coverage tends to mirror the same stories, like the heavily sweetened breakfast cereals that line supermarket shelves. Turning to the current crisis, we should expect to find news media coverage consistent with its past performance.

Recall that in his first reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President Bush did not originally consider that the situation warranted U.S. military intervention.(1) That was on August 2, the day of the invasion. This stance was praised in an editorial in the New York Times the following day. “The U.S. has no treaty obligation to come to Kuwait’s aid. But the Gulf States and most nations still look to Washington for leadership and help in organizing action. President Bush has responded with the right lead—a strong national stand and a strong push for collective diplomacy.”(2)

Several days later, on August 7, President Bush sent American forces to Saudi Arabia. On August 9, the New York Times changed its tune. In an editorial titled, “The U.S. Stands Up. Who Else?” the editors wrote:

“President Bush has drawn a line in the sand, committing U.S. forces to face down Saddam Hussein. The costs and risks are momentous, going well beyond U.S. military operations in Lebanon, Grenada and Panama.

“On balance, he has made the right choice in the right way.”

In his statement explaining the need to dispatch U.S. military forces to Saudi Arabia, the President said the troops were needed to “deter further Iraqi aggression” against Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. This pretext of defending Saudi Arabia (and by implication the oil fields) had received a major buildup in the major media the previous week. On the day Bush made his troop deployment announcement, the following item was buried in the Times:

“But although the White House and the State Department continued to express anxiety about the possibility of an invasion [of Saudi Arabia], there were no signs of one on the ground, and some analysts continue to believe one unlikely.”(3)

Thus, in a matter of days, the Times shifted gears on the deployment of troops. When the administration said it was not going to deploy troops, the paper supported the White House with appropriate rationalizations about “collective diplomacy. When the White House changed its mind, the Times exaggerated the Iraqi threat to Saudi Arabia in its banner page-one headlines, while admitting on the inside pages that analysts did not take the threat seriously.

The pretense about the defense of Saudi Arabia was maintained by the press through October. Not surprisingly, the massive dispatch of U.S. soldiers and war material to the Persian Gulf for the purpose of defending Saudi Arabia also happened to be the position Washington supported, according to the polls. In contrast, the media downplayed an apparent larger U.S objective—of preparing for an offensive military campaign to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait and to destroy the Iraqi army and industrial infrastructure—which had not been favored by Americans.

When polls indicated that Americans were not keen on dying to keep the price of oil down, the Bush White House dropped its early references to oil in favor of “deterring aggression” and “defending the American way of life.” The mass media played along, as usual.

The Bush Administration made several claims to justify its intervention, claims accepted and amplified by the establishment media. One is that Saddam Hussein is the “new Hider of the Middle East.” A second is that “the standoff in the Gulf is not between the United States and Iraq,” to quote President Bush, but “between the world and Saddam Hussein? A third is that Saddam Hussein committed an act of “naked aggression?

Framing the Crisis

There is no doubt that Ira9 committed an act of aggression on August 2 when it invaded Kuwait But aggression—the resort to the use of force by one country against another—is hardly new. There are the recent examples of U.S. aggression against Panama and Grenada. There is also the ten-year long U.S. proxy war against Nicaragua that resulted in some 50,000 Nicaraguan casualties and destroyed that country’s economy.

Recall that Washington mined Nicaragua’s harbors, an act the World Court considered an act of aggression, ordering the United States to compensate Nicaragua $17 billion for damages. Not only did the Reagan-Bush Administration ignore the verdict of the World Court and continue to prosecute the proxy war through secret funding, it also refused to pay compensation. Currently the Bush Administration is pressuring Nicaragua to drop its claims and settle for some aid.

Yet the media have suddenly “discovered” Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran ten years ago, and his other crimes (use of chemical weapons in the war with Iran; the gassing of the Kurds; torture and murder of political prisoners, and the like).(4)

When Saddam Hussein invoked concern over the holy shrines of Islam as American troops were landing in Saudi Arabia, U.S. reporters were quick to point out the “hypocrisy” of a man who all his life had been a secular nationalist and had fought a long war with Iran in order to stamp out the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. These same reporters and commentators evidently could not detect Bush’s hypocrisy.

Then there are the aggressions committed by the U.S. allies in the Gulf. Turkey, a key player in the international sanctions against Iraq, has long occupied half of Cyprus in complete disregard of U.N. resolutions, and brutalized its own Kurdish population. Indonesia, another U.S. ally, and the largest Muslim country in the world, invaded and occupied the tiny island country of East Timor in December 1975.

According to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, America’s U.N. ambassador at the time, some 60,000 Timorese had been killed, about ten percent of the population. When the Indonesian generals ran out of ammunition, the Carter administration quickly resupplied them. Meanwhile, back at the United Nations, Moynihan recounts in his memoir, A Dangerous Place:

“The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”(5)

Other allies in Operation Desert Storm include Morocco and Syria, each of which has invaded and or-copied neighboring regions, the former Spanish Sahara in the case of Morocco and Lebanon in the case of Syria. Then there is Israel, America’s “strategic ally,” in the Middle East. Its nearly quarter-century occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and other Arab lands is repeatedly cited by Middle Easterners as the great contradiction in the American stand against Iraq.

In the American news media, if these issues appear at all, they are summarily dismissed. A case-in-point occurred last August in a New York Times story about Arab-American reactions to the Gulf crisis. The Arab-Americans in the story “repeatedly invoke[d] Israel’s 1982 invasion” of Lebanon in discussing the current crisis. The comparison was rudely dispensed with by Times reporter Felicity Barringer, who explained that the comparison “does not take into account a crucial difference: that Kuwait had not attacked Iraq, while southern Lebanon was home to Palestinian bases that had repeatedly shelled Israeli territory.”(6)

Barringer’s objection was based on a standard falsehood. The PLO had scrupulously maintained a U.S.-arranged ceasefire along the border, even after repeated violations by Israel, as the limes itself reported at the time.(7) Israel attacked Lebanon precisely because the PLO’s adherence to the eleven-month-old ceasefire made it a credible negotiating partner in the eyes of the world, something the Israeli government wanted to avoid, thereby retaining the Occupied Territories.(8)

It is instructive to compare the Times coverage of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to its initial coverage of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait eight years later. While Iraq’s invasion was unambiguously called aggression, the word was never used throughout the duration of Israel’s three-month onslaught which claimed an estimated 20,000 lives, mostly civilian.

The Times extensive coverage of the 1982 war never once referred to the Israeli army as “a quarter-million strong,” “battle-hardened,” or noted that it possessed nuclear and chemical weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, both with unsavory pasts, were not called “new Hiders of the Middle East” or “bullies who are throwing their weight around the neighborhood? Begin’s objectives were said to be “limited” to “a twenty-five-mile buffer zone” in southern Lebanon, as dutifully reported even when General Sharon’s troops violated it on the ground.

Regarding Israel’s aggression, the Times in 1982 struck a decisively indulgent tone: “So long as it is denied secure boundaries, Israel will pursue a chimeric security in an ever wider arc of territory. Israel… can be condemned, and perhaps restrained, but that will only nourish its anguish, and defiance.”(9) In contrast, the Times unambiguously condemned Iraq’s invasion as “a brazen challenge to world law.”(10)

The Times’ contradictory positions are often attributed to an internal pm-Israel bias. In reality, they are entirely consistent with Washington’s official line, with room for tactical differences. One need only examine official U.S. words and deeds to spot the pattern.

World opinion opposed both Israeli and Iraqi aggression equally. But because the U.S. position on the Iraqi invasion coincided with the rest of the world, the United Nations and world opinion suddenly came into focus in the U.S. media. In the case of Israeli aggression, the U.S. was virtually isolated and accordingly the United Nations was attacked as hostile to U.S. interests in the same media.

There is much discussion of late in the media about “the U.N.’s coming of age” as a Boston Globe editorial put it on August 8. The Washington Post’s senior political commentator, David Broder put it this way:

“During the long Cold War years, the Soviet veto and the hostility of many Third World nations made the United Nations an object of scorn to many American politicians and citizens. But in today’s altered environment, it has proved to be an effective instrument of world leadership, and, potentially, an agency that can effect both peace and the rule of law in troubled regions.”(11)

“In brief” comments Noam Chomsky, “the U.N. misbehaved in the past because of superpower rivalry, Russian obstructionism, and the psychic disorders of the Third World. But our victory in the Cold War has changed all that.”(12)

Most of the Security Council vetoes, contrary to popular opinion, have been the work of the United States in recent decades. Washington has vetoed twenty-three of sixty-six Security Council resolutions over the past two decades. These resolutions criticized Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights; called for a U.N. role in peace negotiations; condemned Israeli aggression against neighboring Lebanon; and called on Israel to abide by the Geneva conventions.

In other examples, “the United States was alone (with Israel) in opposing a General Assembly resolution calling for an end to hostilities when Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982. The U.S. vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning Israel for ignoring the U.N.’s demand for the withdrawal of its forces, and calling for simultaneous withdrawal of Israeli and Palestinian armed forces from Beirut, then just coming under devastating Israeli bombardment of civilian targets; the latter veto was justified on the grounds that the resolution ‘was a transparent attempt to preserve the PLO as a viable political force,’ plainly unacceptable, since a major goal of this U.S.-backed aggression was to undermine the embarrassing diplomatic initiatives of the PLO.”(13)

The World Against Saddam

When the Iraqi occupation army began surrounding and harassing foreign embassies in Kuwait, the limes editors denounced Saddam Hussein for “lash[ing] out at diplomacy itself” and demanded, for the first time, that he be tried as a war criminal under the Nuremberg principles. The charges included his defiance of international law and treaties, “ill treatment of civilians in occupied territories,” and his latest outrage against “diplomats whose special status is protected by the Vienna Conventions.”

Yet earlier in 1990, these same editors remained silent when American troops attacked the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama, and Washington vetoed a resolution condemning the attack (13-1, Britain abstaining).14 In short, the U.N. :j5 a fine place, so long as it does not interfere with the actions of the world’s self-appointed policeman, and his deputies in the U.S. media.

Part of the United Nation’s appeal during the Gulf crisis is the fact that for once the United States joined world opinion in condemning aggression. This coincidence of views helped the White House sell its massive deployment of troops to the Middle East, including President Bush’s action taking the country to the brink of war, which while heir to a long tradition of unilateral presidential actions, was done without the formal consent of Congress. Congress essentially ratified the president’s action’s after the fact, just as the United Nations sanctioned the trade embargo against Iraq after the U.S. Navy imposed a blockade and fired warning shots at Iraqi ships, both universally recognized as acts of war.

The Bush Administration has sought to portray the Gulf standoff as “the world arrayed against Saddam Hussein.” This is true so far as condemnation of the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait is concerned, but this consensus does not extend to the objectives of destroying the army and toppling the government of Iraq, the real objectives of the attack against Iraq as a New York Times story revealed in a rare movement of candor.(14)

With the exception of Britain, the European community only reluctantly went along with the U.S.-led strategy. Germany, in particular, has not been eager to get involved economically, nor willing to violate its national constitution prohibiting its military involvement outside the defense of the country. That provision like the rest of the (post-war West German) constitution was essentially written by the United States.

Likewise Japan, with a similar constitutional ban on foreign military intervention, was pressured by Washington to violate its U.S.-authored constitution. To my knowledge there were no editorials in the major media praising the mass popular opposition among the Japanese electorate in defense of their constitution.

The New York limes quickly denounced Washington’s Western allies as “fair-weather allies,” but the media failed to examine why these allies tended to remain aloof The reasons behind this anomaly are not difficult to fathom.

The United States has almost exclusively controlled the energy resources of the Middle East since the Second World War A State Department planning paper in 1945 described Saudi Arabia as “. . . a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”(15) While the U.S. consumed very little of this oil directly—even today Middle Eastern oil accounts for only a relatively small part of U.S. imports—Europe and Japan depend heavily on it.

American control over their oil lifeline gave Washington tremendous leverage over these rival economies. Thus it is no wonder that our allies/rivals are not very keen on bankrolling the American reestablishment of its former dominance over Middle East oil, particularly its pricing system. As one observer put it, “Europe and Japan seem reluctant to risk or spend much to ensure that oil production and price be administered under the guiding hand of the United States and its clients rather than a coalition influenced by Saddam Hussein.”(16)

U.S. military intervention is also extremely unpopular throughout the Arab world. On August 11, the Times ran a banner headline “Arabs Vote to Send Troops to Help Saudis” giving the impression of an unanimous decision, when in fact, as the story indicated, only twelve of the twenty-one members of the Arab League voted to send troops to defend Saudi Arabia. The story also inaccurately claimed the PLO backed Iraq.

In U.S. media coverage, it is not enough for an Arab country to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, It must support the American military presence in the region. The case of Tunisia is instructive. A Times story in early September notes that Tunisia “was one of the first to condemn the Iraqi invasion.” “But to the surprise and ire of the Bush Administration, the Government of President Zinc El Abidine Ben Ali has instead strongly opposed the United States-led intervention.”

A poll in Tunisia showed that ninety percent of the respondents supported Iraq over the United States, “a result that Western diplomats here said probably accurately reflects public sentiment. All opposition parties support the government’s position.” None of this makes sense to the Western diplomats with whom the limes correspondent is able to talk. We learn that “Western governments have accused President Ben Ali of turning anti-Western.” Notice that opposition to American military deployment is “anti-Western,” and by extension irrational, since Western and rationality are synonymous.

“One European diplomat suggested that Tunisia’s attitude was simply ‘knee-jerk reactions cobbled together as policy.'” Translation: Whatever these people tell you is emotionalism and irrationality. Much the same pattern was followed in reporting on Jordan’s opposition to the U.S. military intervention.(17)

The Middle East’s New Hitler

While much of the previous record of U.S. support for Saddam Hussein, by now very well known, has come out in the major media, this has done little to disturb the constant barrage of the Saddam-as-Hitler thesis. Even a simpleton would have to wonder. If Saddam is as bad as they say, what in heaven’s name was the U.S. doing in bed with him? If Saddam is the new Hitler, what does that make Bush? Hitler’s mistress?

Such conclusions were never arrived at in the establishment media. The official explanation for these messy matters is that Washington tried to steer Saddam Hussein in the right direction through our assistance, but alas, he was incorrigible. Now, we must try a different tack. All fine and well, if you believe in fairy tales.

The most sinister use of the Hitler theme, in my opinion, is directed at the future, rather than the past Question: would you negotiate with Hitler? The answer obviously no. Hence the real message behind the label, which I must conclude is calculated in the most cynical way to banish the thought of any negotiations with Saddam Hussein. The news media have played along brilliantly, suppressing or playing down every effort at a political settlement.

On August 12, Saddam Hussein announced his willingness to withdraw if others withdrew from occupied Arab lands; Syria from Lebanon, Israel from the territories conquered in 1%7. These would occur on the basis of “all United Nations and Security Council resolutions … both to arrive at the earliest possible solution and to apply the same action taken by the Security Council against Iraq on any party that does not comply with these arrangements and answers to them.”(18)

This was dismissed with derision by the White House. The U.S. reaction, like Saddam Hussein’s offer, was buried in the New York Times on August 13. The offer was placed on page six under a nondescript heading among three-and-a-half pages of news related to the crisis, not counting page one stories. The U.S. rejection was a single line buried on page five titled, “Transcript of U.S. Statement About Measures Against Iraq.”

The relevant line stated, “Regarding Saddam Hussein’s proposals announced today, the United States categorically rejects them.” In contrast to the coverage of the limes, the Detroit dailies at least had the honesty to announce the U.S. rejection in their page one headlines: “No deal, U.S. tells Hussein,” (Detroit News, Aug. 13), and “Bush rejects conditions set by Hussein to end impasse,” (subheading, Detroit Free Press, Aug. 13).

The following day, the U.S. rejection was buried again as a one-liner in a story titled, “Iraqi Embargo Taking Hold As Tanker Sails Off Empty.” Referring tore-ports of support for the Iraqi peace offer in Jordan, Sudan and Yemen, the limes story stated: “The White House dismissed the plan as soon as it was announced, and Mr. Bush said today, ‘I don’t see anything pleasing in there at all.’” The rejection appeared in paragraph 32 of a 42-paragraph story.”(19)

On August 23, Iraq sent another offer via a former high-ranking U.S. official to National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft Iraq offered to withdraw from Kuwait and allow foreigners to leave in return for the lifting of sanctions, guaranteed access to the Gulf and full Iraqi control of the disputed Rumailah oil field that partially extends into Kuwait. According to documents, Iraq offered to negotiate with the U.S. an oil agreement “satisfactory to both nations’ national security interests,” “jointly work on the stability of the gulf,” and develop a joint plan “to alleviate Iraq’s economical and financial problems” There was no demand that the U.S. withdraw from Saudi Arabia or other preconditions.(20)

An earlier Iraqi offer in April 1990 to destroy its stockpile of chemical and other non-conventional weapons if Israel would do the same was also dismissed.

There have been persistent hints in the mainstream news media of other Iraqi offers, diplomatic trial balloons, and third-party mediation efforts. So persistent are these proposals that they came up at a Senate hearing in mid-October. Senator Frank Murkowski, (Rep.-AK), asked Secretary of State James Baker.

“We have put a line in the sand that says that there’s not going to be any conditions on the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, they’re going to simply withdraw and there’s no room for negotiation, arbitration or otherwise. The rationale is one that I support. I’m wondering, though, in the search for a peaceful solution, is there some alternative that could be explored of commercial solution? If everybody’s looking for a way out because the other alternative that we’ve discussed here today isn’t very pretty—it’s body bags, it’s a reality of a war, and you know, we want to avoid that at all costs if possible.”

Baker sidestepped the issue by pointing to sanctions as the only way to a peaceful solution, adding, “We think it would be a terrible mistake in terms of establishing a new world order, if we began by working deals that would permit unprovoked aggression to pay.”(21)

Brave Old-New World

Baker’s New World Order” is a world where one economically ailing, but still militarily viable superpower, now virtually unchecked by its former rival superpower, has full run of the Third World’s human and natural resources. Without the advantages of controlling these resources, and markets, the superpower would be hard pressed to shore-up its ailing economy as it faces head-on competition from its allies/rivals, Western Europe and Japan.

Having rejected outright a negotiated settlement, the Bush administration narrowed the field of options to economic sanctions and military force. The administration then chose to follow the sanctions option until its military buildup in the Gulf was complete, at which point sanctions were declared a failure and the “military option” (which has a less harsh tone than war) announced as the only course.

When the United States launched the war, the news media had fulfilled their task of making it seem inevitable, thus the New York Times headline the morning after. “U.S. and Allies Open Air War on Iraq… ‘No Choice’ But Force, Bush Declares” (Jan. 17, 1991).


  1. R.W. Apple, Jr., “Naked Aggression,” NYT, August 3, 1990, 1.
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  2. “Iraq’s Naked Aggression,” August 3, 1990.
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  3. R.W. Apple, Jr., “U.S. May Send Saudis a Force of 50,000; (Bush Rules Out Invasion of Kuwait,” NYT, August 9, 1990, 1. New York News cited CIA sources on August 9 who doubted Iraq intended to invade Saudi Arabia. See the excellent story exposing this and other administration exaggerations by Newsday reporter Knut Royce, “White House Distorted Iraqi Potential Sources,” reprinted in Ann Arbor News, January 21, 1991.
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  4. Royce reports that the evidence that Iraq purposely gassed Kurds is flimsy, according to officials, who have reviewed the classified material and a U.S army study. In fact, evidence points to Iran’s cyanide gas, which Iraq did not possess, as the agent that killed numerous Kurds in 1988, Ibid.
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  5. Cited in Noam Chomsky, “Letter from Lexington” Column, Lies of our Times, Institute for Media Analysis, New York, November 1990, 8.
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  6. “With Loyalty Split, Arab Americans Fault Hussein, But U.S. Too,” August 16, 1990, A16.
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  7. June 5, 1982, 6; June 6, 1982, A1.
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  8. A fuller discussion of this episode is found in my “Iraq and Other Aggressions,” Lies of Our Times, September 1990.
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  9. “Ever Greater Israel,” June 7, 1982.
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  10. “Iraq’s Naked Aggression,” August 3, 1990.
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  11. Washington Post Weekly, September 3, 1990, cited in Noam Chomsky, Lies of Our Times, October 1990.
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  12. Ibid.
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  13. Chomsky, Lies of Our Times, October 1990.
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  14. Editorial, NYT, August 25; cited in Chomsky, Lies of Our Times, October 1990.
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  15. Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle, 17 (cited in), and G. Kolko, The Limits of Power (Harper and Row, 1972, 242).
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  16. “Noam Chomsky,-America’s Isolation In the Gulf,” Boston Globe, September 16, 1990, A 19.
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  17. Edward Schumacher, “Tunis, Long Friendly to West, Bristles With Hostility to U.S. Gulf Moves,” September 6, 1990, A8; Joel Brinkley,-“Divided Loyalties,” NYT Magazine, December 16, 1990. Brinkley explains King Hussein’s opposition to the U.S.  buildup as the result of pressure from Jordan’s large Palestinian population. Brinkley ignores the real threat to Jordan’s monarchy and stability from Israel, which openly seeks to drive Palestinians from the Occupied West Bank into Jordan so that they can live in the “Palestinian state: called Jordan. See N. Abraham, “Making Israel’s War Plans Disappear, Lies of Our Times, November 1990.
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  18. “Proposals by Iraqi President: Excerpts from His Address,” NYT, August 13, 1990, A6.
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  19. NYT, August 14, 1 and A6.
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  20. Newsday, August 29, 1990; Noam Chomsky, “Nefarious Aggression,” Z Magazine, October 1990.
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  21. T. Friedman, “Senators Demand Bush Ask Congress Before Iraq Move,” NYT, October 18, 1990, 1.
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March-April 1991, ATC 31