THE BLOG

Newspeak and the New War in Iran

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

The more I read the press releases and public statements of the U.S. military command in Iraq (the "Multinational Force Iraq") under Gen. David Petraeus, the more I am reminded of the dystopian future empire of George Orwell's 1984, in which the state controls thought processes through an ingenious language called "Newspeak." That variant of English is organized so as to reinforce the total dominance of the state by removing all shades of meaning except the extreme dichotomies that keep people in line.

The primary characteristic of Newspeak, therefore, is that words are robbed of meaning and become instruments of political control. Obviously the war managers had to engage in some gross manipulation of words was going on in Iraq from 2003 through 2006 to cover up the reality of a totalitarian Gulag in which many tens of thousands of Sunnis were mistreated, often tortured and kept for many months without any due process.

But in 2007, Petraeus and his White House handlers have carried the misuse of words to a new level that is truly reminiscent of Newspeak. The reason for this predictable development is clear: the shift in White House strategy to using the U.S. occupation of Iraq to pursue its escalating campaign of pressure on Iran.

At the center of Petraeus's Newspeak is the word "evidence." The common sense understanding of the word is that it either involves direct, objective documentation of a legal or other claim or theory, or circumstances that allow a logical inference. But in the fast-morphing war in Iraq, "evidence" has taken on an expansive new meaning.

Petraeus gave the word "evidence" a whole new meaning in his news conference at the National Press Club September 12. Asked for the evidence of Iranian responsibility for the attacks on U.S. troops, Petraeus said Iran "certainly has contributed to a sophistication of attacks that would be no means be possible without Iranian support when it comes to the explosively formed projectiles, a signature item provided by the Iranians; rockets, again, very -- particularly 240-mm that, again, there's no question where they have come from. And the evidence is very, very clear. We captured it when we captured Qais Khazali, the Lebanese Hezbollah deputy commander, and others, and it's in black and white."

Petraeus went on to declare, " It is not just intelligence. It rises to the level of evidence, particularly what we captured when we got the hard drives of the computers from the individuals that we picked up in Basra."

Fortunately for anyone trying to interpret his Newspeak, however, Petraeus had already described the contents of that hard drive in his April 26 press briefing. He said they included a memorandum which "detailed the planning, preparation, approval process and conduct of the operation that resulted in five of our soldiers being killed in Karbala" and "numerous documents which detailed a number of different attacks on coalition forces...." Petraeus said nothing to suggest that these documents yielded any trace of Iranian involvement in any phase of the operations or that they had been given material assistance or even training, giving us good reason to believe that they did not. Instead he tried to link those operations to Iran by saying, "[O]ur sense is that these records were kept so that they could be handed to whoever it is that is financing them."

So in the Newspeak of U.S.-occupied Iraq, "evidence" means whatever gives the General and his staff a "sense" that a politically convenient claim is true. In other words, it is the simply the administration's own subjective feelings about the question. Petraeus uses the term in the same way that Dick Cheney used it when he declared famously in September 2002 that the Bush administration had "irrefutable evidence" of Saddam's efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Now that the enemy in Iraq has changed to Iran, any Iraqi Shiite groups that are opposing the U.S. occupation must be linked with Iran. But the political reality in Iraq does not conform neatly to this politically convenient narrative of "proxy war." Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, far from being a pawn of Iran is in fact the most independent and nationalist of the Shiite groups, and also the most popular by far. Sadr has long enjoyed good relations with Hezbollah, however, and has certainly gotten technical assistance and training from them. Meanwhile the Badr corps, whose chief is also a government minister, has been the closest thing to an Iranian "proxy" in the country, with very close relationships with the Iranians at high levels. But unfortunately for Petraeus's proxy war narrative, its followers aren't resisting the U.S. occupation.

To make matters worse, Petraeus knows perfectly well that the Mahdi Army is too strong to be defeated by military force, but the administration is unwilling to make peace with it, because that would mean compromising with those who refuse to accept the occupation. So he's been forced to try something in between -- to put pressure on the Madhi Army in the vain hope that it will split between those who will accept the occupation and those who refuse.

To get people to take a simple, black and white view of that messy situation, Petraeus and his handlers in Washington have invented an entirely new vocabulary to describe what is going on in Shiite Iraq. The objectives of the new vocabulary is to portray the targets of U.S. violence as both Iranian pawns (and therefore enemies of the American people) and only marginal elements in the Shiite community.

So we now have such politically innovative terms as "Shiite extremists" and "rogue cells" filling the command's daily press releases and public statements. The use of any of those terms by someone who reads these documents involves just the kind of dumbed-down, child-like thinking that Newspeak was supposed to create.

So as a public service to journalists and researchers trying to make sense of Petraeus's propaganda output, here is a guide to what some of the key Newspeak terms really mean:

Shiite extremists: Shiites opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq who are current or prospective targets of U.S. suppression.

Iranian surrogates: Shiites opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq who are current or prospective targets of U.S. suppression

secret cell: any armed organization of Shiites opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq who are current or prospective targets of U.S. suppression

secret cell terrorist network: any network of Shiite armed organizations of Shiites opposed to the U.S. occupation which are current or prospective targets of U.S. suppression.

rogue cell: any Shiite armed organization opposed to the U.S. occupation which is a current or prospect target of U.S. suppression.

affiliate of Quds Force: anyone suspected of involvement in weapons smuggling.