Earlier this month, Joe Biden referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “brutal” “war criminal” who should be put on trial for his actions in Ukraine. Biden then used these allegations of war crimes to call on Congress to provide more weapons and money to Ukraine and demand increased sanctions against Russia and its citizens.
Republicans in Congress have been happy to comply, voting unanimously in the Senate to revive the World War II-era Lend-Lease Program. So far, Congress has approved $14 billion in aid to Ukraine (enough to pay for one complete border wall between the United States and Mexico).
Even President Trump, who should know better than to trust anything coming out of the D.C. swamp—especially when it concerns Russia and Eastern Europe—has seized upon the war crimes language. He has echoed Biden, in fact, calling the Russian war in Ukraine a “genocide.” Trump isn’t nearly as crazed as the leftists, of course. He lacks the requisite bloodlust.
Still, Trump and his supporters have plenty of reason to be skeptical of claims that the Russians are committing atrocities. We Americans have a long and proud tradition of being lied into war with false and lurid claims of war crimes abroad. We would do well to develop a healthy sense of distrust for anything about which the media, White House, and both parties are in agreement—especially when it comes to American intervention abroad.
Most Americans, at this point, know that the 2003 war in Iraq was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them. The infamous image of Colin Powell holding up a vial of white powder before the United Nations is proof positive of the willful deception engaged in by the Bush Administration to push us into war.
Less well known is that the first Gulf War was also based on a lie.
Unpacking the precise nature of that lie is instructive for our contemporary situation.
On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The immediate response from President George H. W. Bush was to compare Hussein to Adolf Hitler. In an August 8 speech from the Oval Office, Bush argued, “if history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms. Appeasement does not work. As was the case in the 1930s, we see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors.”
The argument that we have a right and duty to “resist aggression” abroad, even that which has no immediate connection to preserving our rights and liberties, will be familiar to Americans. But, at the time, public opinion polling for U.S. military involvement in the region was firmly divided.
Most Americans did not care about the geopolitical intrigue between two authoritarian dictatorships on the other side of the world. They would be made to care, however.
On October 10, 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only as “Nayirah”—to protect her from reprisals ostensibly—testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus about what she had seen on a recent trip to Kuwait: “I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the children to die on the cold floor. It was horrifying.”
The visceral image of Iraqi troops butchering infants in hospitals seized the political world by storm. More than 30 million Americans saw footage of the testimony that night on ABC’s “Nightly News” and NBC’s “Nightline.” Seven senators cited the killing of infants by Iraqi troops in their speeches in defense of war with Iraq. President Bush referenced Nariyah’s testimony of baby killings more than six times in public speeches about the war. Amnesty International initially supported Nariyah’s testimony.
It was all a lie.
A relevant detail from the testimony had been left out—Nariyah’s last name. In a 1992 documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the U.S. media couldn’t be bothered to do real journalism), reporters from the show “The Fifth Estate” investigated Nariyah’s claims. They discovered that her real name was Nariyah Al-Sabah—her father was Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States, Saud Nasser Al-Sabah. Both Nasser and Nariyah were members of the Kuwaiti royal family and were part of a coordinated media campaign by the Kuwaiti government to gin up American support for the liberation of Kuwait.
The Sabah family has ruled the small oil-producing kingdom since the late 19th century when Mubarak Al-Sabah murdered his brother and seized power—and brought the small Gulf nation into British orbit. Today, Kuwait is one of the poorest Gulf states and rife with corruption.
Kuwait, far from being a beacon of democracy, was and is a repressive neo-feudal fiefdom in the hands of a single family. On their behalf, 149 American troops died in the First Gulf War, and U.S. taxpayers spent $116 billion to take this regime from the hands of Saddam Hussein and return it to the Al-Sabah oligarchs.
All of this was, in part, because of the skillful propaganda campaign worked by the Kuwaiti government. Citizens for a Free Kuwait, an interest group that received money from the Kuwaiti government, spent $10 million to gin up war fever. They hired the consulting group Hill and Knowlton to help them craft their public relations strategy. It was Hill and Knowlton that zeroed in on the strategy of emphasizing Iraqi war crimes.
The Human Rights Caucus was a prime target for Kuwaiti propaganda. The caucus’ headquarters were located in the office building that Hill and Knowlton owned. In fact, the caucus got a sweetheart deal on rent from the PR firm. U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, a Hungarian immigrant and Holocaust survivor who was the Democratic co-chairman of the caucus, knew Nariyah’s identity but concealed it from his Republican counterpart, Rep. John Porter of Illinois. Lantos and the caucus appeared to benefit financially from Nariyah’s testimony. They later received a $50,000 donation from Hill and Knowlton.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how the sausage really gets made in American politics. It isn’t corruption if it’s legal! Put simply, Nariyah’s testimony shows that the American military and members of Congress are for sale to foreign powers—and on the cheap, too!
The Kuwaitis, on the other hand, got a 1 million percent return on their $10 million investment in war fever propaganda. Later investigation by the World Health Organization and Canadian and American journalists discovered that the Iraqi military had not stolen or destroyed a single baby, and no evidence of the intentional killing of Kuwaiti infants in hospitals could be found. Images of mass graves for these children were entirely fabricated.
But the American public and our politicians never learn. The three decades since the Gulf War have featured lie after lie by our ruling class on every subject under the sun. The COVID hysteria alone is proof of the vicious mendacity of our regime and its apparatchiks.
Everything our ruling class cares about, it lies about. On that basis alone, Americans should reflexively distrust every claim about “Putin’s war crimes” when those claims come from the mouths of our geriatric oligarchs and their media mouthpieces.
If the fake Nariyah testimony teaches us anything—it is that Americans desperately need, and deserve, to have a real country . . . one that isn’t for sale to the highest bidder.