A few hours before the UK’s first air strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq, the home secretary, Theresa May, warned the Tory party conference that IS could become the “world’s first truly terrorist state”.
May said that IS could realise the “often-prophesied” threat of attacking western enemies with chemical and nuclear weapons. Interesting because, as this conflict has approached, the government has been using the same techniques and devices of propaganda and persuasion that were brought out to justify the Iraq war of 2003, the removal of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and the proposed attacks on the Assad regime in Syria in 2013.
If you look back at recent conflicts, and those in the Middle East in particular, the same arguments are made. There is essentially a five-point plan that can be used to justify foreign intervention of most kinds.
Step 1. Highlight Atrocities
If you are to claim the moral high ground, the first thing to do is show that your adversary is despotic and deranged. For British governments and the media, that has long meant using atrocity propaganda.
At the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991, we were falsely told that Iraqi soldiers had emptied babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals and left them to die. In Kosovo in 1999, Tony Blair spoke of hearing “first-hand of women raped, of children watching their fathers dragged away to be shot”. In 2003, Blair spoke of the thousands of children dying every year in Iraq and Saddam’s torture chambers. Now, IS is highlighting its own barbarity in online videos and the case for action on this count hardly has to be made.