Since Sept. 11, 2001, the government of the United States of America has led a world-wide war against terrorism and nations which harbor terrorists. President George W. Bush and his administration have charted the nation’s path in measured steps based on intelligence reports and reliable information gathered from cooperative foreign governments. In the summer of 2003, as part of his continuing War on Terror, the president leveled his sights on Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein. The U.S. leader demanded Iraq’s full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 which had passed in 1991. The resolution mandated the destruction of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, and long-range missiles following the 1991 Gulf war to oust invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The U.N. resolutions also demanded Iraq provide evidence of the destruction of said weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Saddam Hussein agreed to comply with the resolutions. However, throughout the 1990s, Saddam Hussein sidestepped, ignored and defied the world’s mandate. He blocked U.N. weapons inspectors’ activities and denied them access to sites. When the inspection teams left Iraq in 1998, the world’s governmental leaders cowed to Saddam Hussein’s illegal behavior. The Iraqi citizens had paid the price for his non-compliance. In an effort to pressure Saddam Hussein to capitulate for the good of his nation’s people, the U.N. Security Council issued a resolution which barred foreign trade with Iraq. Saddam Hussein did not capitulate and the common citizens of Iraq added to their burden as victims of the dictator’s tyranny. Recognizing the problem they’d created, the U.N. authorized the Oil for Food program allowing Iraq to export oil from which the funds would be used to rebuild Iraq and improve the quality of life for Iraqis. Conditions improved slightly, but Saddam Hussein’s regime channeled humanitarian supplies to the military and filled its coffers with the people’s money.
By the fall of 2002, and at the behest of the U.N. Security Council, Hussein’s government finally turned over a document – more than 25,000 pages long in Arabic – detailing an inventory of their weapons and the supposed evidence of their WMD destruction. They also allowed U.N. weapons inspectors to enter Iraq in October 2002. Just like U.N. weapons inspection teams in the 1990s, the new inspection teams were encountering obstacles to “full and unfettered access” to potential storage sites for WMD.
By January 2003, President Bush had had enough. He called for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action to disarm Iraq. The council could not reach a consensus, desiring to prolong the WMD inspection process. This, to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seemed like another in a long line of capitulations to Saddam Hussein’s gamesmanship. The U.N. had neglected its own mandates to rid Iraq of WMD and to champion the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people while Saddam Hussein plundered the nation’s resources for his own selfish purposes. Diplomacy had failed. Bush and Blair formed a coalition to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime, discover and destroy Iraq’s WMD, and liberate the people of Iraq from Hussein’s oppressive rule. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was born of controversy. This was the first time in history that the United States would strike the first blow in war against a foreign nation. It was also the end of a 12-year cat-and-mouse game that Saddam Hussein had played with the world. He had thumbed his nose at world leaders when they demanded he destroy his weapons of mass destruction. He was unwilling to submit to the world’s social norms. He openly despised Western life, specifically Americans. He advocated terrorism. His historically radical behavior and world views set him apart as a threat to national and world security. Despite the apparent justice it would serve, Operation Iraqi Freedom was not without its critics.
People from around the world denounced a military campaign. Historic Allied nations, France, Germany and Russia, openly opposed military action in Iraq. Indeed, they conspired with other U.N. Security Council members to vote against any resolutions calling for war. Islamic nations called the impending military action a colonial quest for oil. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in peace protests around the world. As America’s sons and daughters traveled to foreign soil to aid others, their own countrymen were voicing their distaste for Operation Iraqi Freedom. And, thanks to the media, the protest against military action in Iraq was out there for the entire world to see.
Conflict is news. The media presented a wide range of viewpoints. The “give peace a chance” philosophy played well for protestors and celebrities alike. The “drawing a line in the sand” angle met strong support with various audiences at home and abroad. America was “treated” to a constant barrage of war build-up stories, video coverage and behind the scenes looks at the Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen involved in this war on terrorism. As the opening salvos and sorties of the war drew closer to the March 21 launch, opposing sides scrambled to air their messages in print, on radio and on television. Public opinion polls showed increasing support for military action. As media coverage increasingly focused on the individual people who would fight the war, the voice of the protestor grew quieter. Even during the March 26 broadcast of the Academy Awards – when many expected the liberal entertainment industry to flex its muscle against “Bush’s war” – the predominant message was to bring the troops home safely and soon. A vocal minority continued their quest to sway American’s against military action, but their voice was soon drowned out by the continuous war coverage offered by Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. War sells and the networks fed a constant stream of in-studio military analysts and satellite video feeds from their reporters who were “embedded” with military forces in Iraq. As the war to defeat Saddam Hussein gathered momentum and built its successes, the American media primed its public with pro-Bush administration messages. These messages were augmented by first-person reports from the field where embedded reporters put a face on America’s warriors. Public opinion polls tipped the scales more heavily in favor of the military action as events played out on TV and in print. Radio’s political pundits also primed their audience to favor the war. The objective media fell victim to the bandwagon syndrome and Americans jumped right aboard.
As war grew closer, vocal dissent chastised the administration at home and abroad. An interesting phenomenon developed as troops and supplies continued their pre-war flow to the Middle East. Some protestors shifted their emphasis from pure advocacy of peace to supporting the troops. Peace, it seemed, had taken a back seat. This may have been due in part to the perception playing out in people’s minds and in the media that those who protested the war were not patriots. Protestors countered that notion by offering their support for the troops.
Media coverage surrounding events leading up to and including the war seemed to be following a predictable path. From the coalition perspective, the vast majority of television, radio, and print news offered an increasingly pro-Bush, pro-military action frame. The opposite held true for non-coalition news sources. The phenomenon was even reported on by the news sources themselves. Not only did it appear that the media had jumped aboard their respective bandwagons, but their increasing failure to provide a fair and balanced perspective had, in effect, seemed to silence the respective minorities – anti-war protestors in coalition nations and pro-war protestors in non-coalition nations. As pre-war and trans-war media coverage reached an increasing pitch, the prevalence of coverage primed the audience along the bias lines each respective media outlet embraced. Historically, communication research has shown framing and priming to be integral components of agenda-setting.