Did the UK government use PR to try and win hearts and minds in the run up to the Iraq war? If so, how successful was this?
The 2003 Iraq conflict was divisive and controversial. The UK government faced unprecedented levels of public protest during the run up to the conflict as well as a hostile reception from former United Nations (UN) allies over whether to join America in invading.
Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of all stakeholders was crucial if the invasion was to be supported and justified, and the UK government undoubtedly employed public relations (PR) techniques to attempt to do just that.
To support that claim I will argue, in this essay, that PR plays a part in the build up of any conflict, and discuss the relationship between PR and propaganda in wartime. I will put forward Tony Blair’s role in ‘selling’ the conflict to the British public, how his own brand of public relations helped massage public opinion, and how intelligence, the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the use of the phrase “war on terror” were used to package the war conveniently for the public. I will then examine the British media’s reporting of the build up of the conflict and question whether it was the subject of management by the UK government, and to what extent it influenced UK public opinion on the issue.
I will conclude by questioning what can be considered successful PR in wartime and argue that although these PR techniques might be seen in the short term as successful, they actually severely damaged the Blair government’s reputation, and the legitimacy of the Iraq conflict, in the long-term.
The 2003 conflict in Iraq represented a significant shift in ideology on foreign policy for the UK government (The Blair Years: Blair at War 2007). Before then, Tony Blair’s government had led a number of military interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, where Blair’s belief that Britain should regard itself “as under an obligation to intervene and to help” (The Blair Years: Blair at War 2007) had proved successful.
But, after September 11th 2001 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, focus shifted to the possible invasion, lead by America, of Iraq, a state not proven to be connected to the New York attacks. The UK government, led by Tony Blair, embarked on a campaign to persuade a sceptical public, and an unreceptive international community, of the need to join the US in the invasion.
The need to persuade the public of the need for war is not a new phenomenon. Theaker (2001, p37) notes:
“Nations need reasons to go to war and in democratic societies there is usually the recognition by governments that the majority of the public must be convinced that these reasons are legitimate.”
Successive governments have struggled with how to gain public support for war and the techniques of public relations and propaganda, perhaps indistinguishably, have always been employed. Indeed, Edward Bernays, often referred to as the ‘father of public relations’ (The Museum of Public Relations 2010), wrote in his 1928 book, Propaganda:
“Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.” (Bernays 1928, p52).
Shah (2005) writes: “Probably every conflict is fought on at leasttwo grounds: the battlefield and the minds of the people via propaganda. The “good guys” and the “bad guys” can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive support and a sense of legitimacy.”
An entire separate essay could be written on the numerous techniques of persuasion employed by governments in the run up to war. Here, it is probably prudent to highlight examples of typical pre-war propaganda used in the build up to the Iraq conflict.
One technique, which was very much in evidence in 2003, is to demonise the enemy leadership. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and bad treatment of his people was one of the key moral arguments employed by the Blair government to justify invasion, in very much the same vein as the arguments against Milosevic in the run up to the invasion of Kosovo. Despite the fact that Hussein eventually let UN weapons inspectors into Iraq, to search for WMDs, he was presented as the antithesis of everything Britain and the US stand for: democracy, freedom, goodness. Allegedly, much of the intelligence gathered came from “Iraqi exile groups, who hated Saddam” (Invading Iraq: How Britain and America got it wrong 2004) and much of British and American rhetoric around Hussein and Iraq was of good versus evil, of a country of “cold-blooded murderers who killed the innocent to achieve political objectives.” (George W. Bush, The Blair Years: Blair at War 2007)
Language is often used as a mantra to create an imperative for war. Indeed, the very phrase hearts and minds is itself an example of pro-war rhetoric and propaganda. Despite being used by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in a speech about African independence in 1960, (Your Archives 2010) it was not until the phrase was used by American President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 that it became a convenient shorthand for the need to persuade people to back war. Johnson used the phrase at the height of the Vietnam conflict saying that victory there would depend on the "hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there. By helping to bring them hope and electricity you are also striking a very important blow for the cause of freedom throughout the world."(Nesbitt 2010).
Blair and Bush’s allusions to a fundamental struggle between right and wrong, using hyperbolic language, became one of their enduring messages in the run up to the Iraq war. Saddam Hussein’s regime had not been proven to have been part of the New York terrorist attacks, which prompted the invasion of Afghanistan, but was identified by both the Blair and Bush governments as a key operator in the so-called “war on terror”.
The phrase war on terror, in its current incarnation, became an important message for the UK government in the run up to the Iraq conflict. It was first used in 2001, nine days after the 9-11 attacks. George Bush, in a speech to congress, said: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” (Quezi 2009).
This phrase conveniently packaged up complex ideas and presented the invasion of Iraq as a simple struggle of good versus evil. It allowed the UK government, following the lead of the Bush administration, to brand the Iraq conflict without seemingly having to define exactly what that war was and why it was needed.
Crafting a message and sticking to it is a common technique of persuasion and Tony Blair’s own personal style of communication used this very effectively.
During his years in power Blair sent British troops into military action more times than any prime minister since Winston Churchill (The Blair Years: Blair at War 2007), so it was vital that he ensured the UK public understood and broadly supported his decisions to go to war.
Blair is a master communicator. Indeed, John Sawers, former political director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who was closely involved in policy on Iraq, said of him:
“One of his great strengths is his power of persuasion...he oozes charm. He can articulate arguments better than any other leader.” (The Blair Years: Blair at War 2007).
This charm had served Blair well in persuading the UK public and his political colleagues of the need for military intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.
The perceived success of these military campaigns had instilled in Blair a “supreme confidence in the rightness of his own judgement” (The Blair Years: Blair at War 2007) and he used his strong belief system to try and win over the hearts and minds of the UK public in the run up to the Iraq conflict.
Blair had set out his argument for military intervention a number of years before Iraq, at a speech in Chicago in 1999. He stated:
“If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged we will have to spill infinitely more blood, and more treasure, just to stop him later.” (The Blair Years: Blair at War 2007).
By the admission of Alastair Campbell, the government’s then director of communications and strategy, none of the Government was in any doubt as to how unpopular the policy to go to war was, writing in his diaries:
“Jack [ Straw ] said they [ Blair and Bush ] would be mad to do Iraq without justification because they will lose world opinion” (Campbell 2007, p576).
I have already discussed the need for governments to persuade their electorate of the need to go to war. Whether one believes or not that Tony Blair acted, as he said he did, out of a profound belief that going to war in Iraq was morally right, his use of persuasion and simple messaging indicates a planned approach to winning over hearts and minds.
One of the most powerful propaganda techniques used in the run up to war, and one that was most certainly employed in the build up to the Iraq conflict is the use of factual or technical information to justify military action.
When questions began to be raised, both by the international community and the media, about why Iraq focussed had shifted to Iraq, the UK government knew it needed a more compelling argument to win over hearts and minds of potential allies, thus strengthening the legality of the conflict.
The Government had very quickly aligned the UK to the US in the wake of September 11th – on September 12th, Alistair Campbell wrote in his diaries: “TB’s [ Tony Blair's ] public words were very much in total support of the US” (Campbell 2007, p562) – but it knew that a war fought in Iraq without the full backing of the international community would damage Britain’s international reputation.