Wednesday, November 16, 2005

That Isn't Going to Help

As if respect for the United States by the rest of the world hadn't already dropped to an all time low, now it appears that we can legitimately be accused of using chemical weapons:

Pentagon officials acknowledged Tuesday that U.S. troops used white phosphorous as a weapon against insurgent strongholds during the battle of Fallujah last November. But they denied an Italian television news report that the spontaneously flammable material was used against civilians.

AP Wire | 11/15/2005 | Pentagon used white phosphorous in Iraq

This is after the Pentagon had previously condemned the Italian report and stated that our troops had "never used chemical weapons in Iraq." Apparently the denial was based upon a disagreement as to whether White Phosphorus should be designated as a chemical weapon. According to an article in an Italian daily, "...on BBC radio on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Venable said that the US State Department's recent assertion that white phosphorus had not been used in Falluja was based on "poor information" .
He also said that "white phosphorus is a conventional munition. It is not a chemical weapon. It is not outlawed or illegal." He said the US army used the incendiary munitions "primarily as obscurants, for smokescreens or target marking in some cases." "However it is an incendiary weapon and may be used against enemy combatants," he added . - News in English - White phosphorus used in Iraq

According to Ansa, an international treaty restricts the use of white phosphorus devices, banning its use against civilian targets -- but the US is not a signatory of this treaty.

I see three patterns here that are troubling -- first there is the use of the "chemical weapon" which we should have been smart enough to avoid. Like the use of terror, this is an indication of a willingness to throw out the conventional rules of behavior which have guided our country up to the current administration, all justified by the "war on terror." As the world's only superpower, and one that has prided itself on being a voice for freedom and democracy, we cannot afford to stop doing what is right, even if it is inconvenient. We should feel a responsibility for setting a good example for the rest of the world.

But the two other patterns are equally disturbing -- as with so many issues that have confronted the Bush administration, there is an attempt at denial based on "bad information" or worse, technical differences in definition. No one in the rest of the world is going to care whether White Phosphorus is officially classified by treaty as a chemical weapon. They can all see the photographs and see the effect of WP and come to their own conclusion. So denying that we have used chemical weapons is a ridiculous statement to make in the face of the evidence.

Which brings us to the last pattern -- why are we (the US) so terrible at crises PR? From the US Government's own website:

In a crisis, the best course of action is to be forthcoming and honest and to do what it takes to facilitate stories. The media are going to write and air stories with or without your help. It's in your best interest to participate in a story — even a negative one — in order to have your position correctly represented. The alternative is for the media to write that a government official "would not respond to our inquiries," which only fuels suspicions and rumors.

A Responsible Press Office

So why can't we follow our own advice?

technorati tags: ,

1 comment:

dan said...

I saw something on this on Daily Kos a few days ago, and apparently it has been simmering for awhile. I think it's both less and more than it appears to be.

Less because white phosphorous munitions are not chemical weapons in the sense the term is usually used (agents meant to kill or injure masses of people by causing chemical burns or systemic tissue and nervous system damage). White phosphorous has been used in combat for nearly a century, and it is not an outlawed weapon despite what the obfuscators say. The military has long acknowledged using white phosphorous in Fallujah. For instance, an article last spring in the Army magazine Field Artillery discussed in detail how it was used against insurgent positions that survived attacks with conventional (and oh-so-humane) high-explosive ordnance. Also, the argument in the Italian media that the use of white phosphorous is banned against civilian targets is spurious on two counts. The laws of war specify that *any* deliberate use of armaments against civilians, or indiscriminate attacks against combatants mingling with civilians, are illegal (Curtis LeMay, take note). Further, in the case of Fallujah, I don't believe anyone's alleging that white phosphorous was used against civilians last November, so that point is irrelevant.

But here's a bigger point. It's sort of absurd to jump on the use of this one weapon as atrocious or inhumane. Is white phosphorous horrible? Yes. More horrible than napalm, the new, improved version of which we have used in Iraq? I can't say. More horrible than, say, a couple of dozen uninvolved civilians being blown to pieces by several 2,000-pound bombs intended for Saddam Hussein (not a hyphothetical -- this happened in April 2003 when we were tipped off he was in a particular Baghdad restaurant)? I couldn't say. More horrible than the effects of modern infantry rifles on the human body? Flamethrowers and fire bombing in World War II? (And: More horrible than suicide and roadside bombs that have taken thousands of civilian lives and killed hundreds of our troops?)

So my point is twofold: first, that the allegations about how this weapon was used in Fallujah appear to be specious on their face; second, there's a certain delusion at work in a discussion that fails to recognize the character of the war we've unleashed.

As far as why we're so bad at crisis PR, I think the answer is simple when it comes to the Iraq matter. It's been a dishonest operation from the start, from ginning up reasons to go to war to Congress's and the people's acquiescence in it. I think it's hard to manage a story that's a lie to begin with; it's too hard to keep your story straight.