Imagine my surprise when I heard CBC radio proclaiming last week that George Bush was "trying to revive the stalled Mideast peace process." As the Israelis slaughter Palestinians in Gaza with US-made fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, missiles and guns, the CBC tells us that Bush is working for peace. This kind of propaganda is a perfect example of how the media typically depict what author Norman Solomon calls the "American warfare state." During a recent radio interview, Solomon said that US foreign policy "is predicated on a profound belief in violence." He added that this dependence on violence becomes apparent "when you look not at the rhetoric of course, but the actual behaviour." Unfortunately though, it's the rhetoric that the mainstream media endlessly parrot.
"George W. Bush sought Thursday to boost the flagging Middle East peace process by voicing fresh optimism about the creation of a Palestinian state," the CBC website declared after Bush met with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. It went on to report, with no apparent irony, that Bush praised Abbas as a man who "rejects the idea of using violence to achieve objectives." Yet Bush himself launched the illegal invasion of Iraq---an invasion and occupation that so far has led to the deaths of a million Iraqis and displaced five million more. Bush claimed he had to act because of the dire threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Besides, he said, he was bringing democracy and peace to Iraq. It was empty rhetoric, but the news media kept repeating it. When I wrote a Coast editorial before the invasion questioning "Bush's fantastic claim that Iraq is a greater threat to world peace than nuclear-armed countries like Israel, India, Pakistan or the US itself," a worried reader emailed to say that Saddam Hussein really scared him. I emailed back that Bush scared me a lot more.
Yes, after more than 30 years in journalism, I'm still disturbed by the official rhetoric that fills news reports. Unfortunately, many people take it at face value. For example, when Bush met the Dalai Lama in 2001, he expressed concern about the protection of human rights in Tibet. But when Tibetan leaders appealed for US and British support in 1949, before the Chinese took control, neither country showed any interest in helping them. Why antagonize Communist China over a remote, feudal territory still stuck in the Middle Ages? At the time, Tibet was run by rich aristocratic and religious elites who owned almost all of the arable land. They granted small plots to their hereditary serfs in return for forced labour. "The defining feature of the Tibetan estate system," writes scholar Melvyn Goldstein, "was that the peasants did not have the right to relinquish their land and seek their fortunes elsewhere. They were not free."
The US started to take an interest in 1958 when the CIA began secretly shipping weapons to Tibetan guerrillas. After the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the CIA stepped up its secret war. Throughout most of the 1960s, the US gave the Tibetan exile movement $1.7 million per year including a $180,000 annual subsidy to the Dalai Lama himself. The CIA-sponsored campaign was designed to create bad PR for the Chinese and harass them militarily with cross-border raids from Nepal, but it was too half-hearted to cause much trouble. The US abandoned its clandestine efforts in the early 1970s when it sought trade relations with China.
So now when George Bush expresses mild concern over human rights in Tibet, he's spouting empty rhetoric. So are Chinese leaders when they boast about all the good things they've done for Tibetans. Both sides seem to care most about preserving their Wal-Mart-style trade. As Norman Solomon points out, it's actions, not words, that count. Official words, endlessly echoed in the mainstream media, are often designed to conceal the violence that powerful leaders routinely unleash.