HOW PROPAGANDA WORKS, 101: Yellow-Ribboning the Lies: How George Bush Sold the 1991 Bombing of Iraq to America

“The U.S. has a new credibility. What we say goes.”

– President George H.W. Bush

NBC Nightly News, Feb. 2, 1991

On October 10, 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, identified only as Nayirah, appeared in Washington before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. She was presented as a Kuwaiti war refugee, and testified that she had been a volunteer worker in the al-Adan hospital in Kuwait City and had seen Iraqi soldiers, who had invaded Kuwait on August 2nd, tear fifteen babies from hospital incubators and “leave them on the cold floor to die.”

Television flashed her testimony around the world. It electrified opposition to Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, who was now portrayed by U.S. president George Bush not only as “the Butcher of Baghdad” but — so much for old friends — “a tyrant worse than Hitler.”

Bush quoted Nayirah at every opportunity. Six times in one month he referred to “312 premature babies at Kuwait City’s maternity hospital who died after Iraqi soldiers stole their incubators and left the infants on the floor,”(1) and of “babies pulled from incubators and scattered like firewood across the floor.” Bush used Nayirah’s testimony to lambaste Senate Democrats still supporting “only” sanctions against Iraq — the blockade of trade which alone would cause hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to die of hunger and disease — but who waffled on endorsing the policy Bush wanted to implement: outright bombardment. Republicans and pro-war Democrats used Nayirah’s tale to hammer their fellow politicians into line behind Bush’s war in the Persian Gulf. (2)

Nayirah testifying before the U.S. Congress. Click here to watch her testimony live.

But Nayirah was no impartial eyewitness, a fact carefully concealed by her handlers. A few key Congressional leaders and reporters — including the co-chairs of the congressional committee sponsoring her testimony, Tom Lantos (D., California) and John Edward Porter (R., Illinois) — explained that Nayirah’s identity would be kept secret to protect her family from reprisals in occupied Kuwait.

Everything Nayirah said, as it turned out, was a lie. There were, in actuality, only a handful of incubators in all of Kuwait, certainly not the “hundreds” she claimed.

According to Dr. Mohammed Matar, director of Kuwait’s primary care system, and his wife, Dr. Fayeza Youssef, who ran the obstetrics unit at the maternity hospital, there were few if any babies in the incubators at the time of the Iraqi invasion. Nayirah’s charges, they said, were totally false. “I think it was just something for propaganda,” Dr. Matar said.

In an ABC-TV News account after the war, John Martin reported that although “patients, including premature babies, did die,” this occurred “when many of Kuwait’s nurses and doctors stopped working or fled the country” — a far cry from Bush’s original assertion that hundreds of babies were murdered by Iraqi troops.(4)

“Before the war,” writes John R. MacArthur, in the New York Times, “the incubator story seriously distorted the American debate about whether to support military action. Amnesty International believed the tale, and its ill-considered validation of the charges likely influenced the seven Senators who cited the story in speeches backing the Jan. 12 resolution authorizing war. Since the resolution passed the Senate by only five votes, the question of how the incubator story escaped scrutiny — when it really mattered — is all the more important.”(5)

Subsequent investigations found no evidence for the incubator claims. Amnesty International later retracted its support of the story and apologized for having publicized it.

Unbeknownst to the American people, Nayirah was no innocent eyewitness. She was the daughter of Saud Nasir Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States.

The pro-war crowd in Congress didn’t think to share that minor detail with Congress, let alone the American people. As Harpers Magazine publisher John R. MacArthur wrote in the NY Times after the war had ended, “Such a pertinent fact might have led to impertinent demands for proof of Nayirah’s whereabouts in August and September of 1990, when she said she witnessed the atrocities, as well as corroboration of her charges.”(3)

It is likely that Nayirah was not even in Kuwait, let alone at the hospital, at that time; the Kuwaiti aristocracy and their families had fled the country weeks before the anticipated invasion. Some defended their country at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo, where at least one member of the ruling family was reported to have gambled away more than $10 million, even as his fellow rulers called for economic and military assistance from abroad.

How did Nayirah first come to the attention of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which put her before the world’s cameras? It had all been arranged behind the scenes by Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm hired to rally the U.S. populace behind Bush’s policy of going to war.

On the heels of their orchestration of Nayirah’s phony “incubator” testimony (which became the pretext for sending thousands of U.S. soldiers into battle), Hill & Knowlton invented the infamous yellow ribbon campaign, to whip up support for “our” troops. In pure advertising terms, the war campaign was a public relations masterpiece. First Nayirah’s unchallenged testimony, then the yellow ribbon campaign, and then the claim that satellite photos revealed that Iraq had troops poised to strike Saudi Arabia — all fabricated by the PR firm, with the support of the U.S. government.(6)

Hill & Knowlton was paid between $12 million (as reported two years later on “60 Minutes”) and $20 million (as reported on “20/20”) for “services rendered.” The group fronting the money? Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a phony “human rights agency” set up and funded entirely by Kuwait’s emirocracy to promote the war in the U.S.

Yet, even though these facts are now well-known, the myths persist, and are reinforced in order to continue the perpetual drumbeat of war against Iraq. A 2003 HBO “behind-the-scenes true story” of the Gulf War “never makes clear that the incubator story was fraudulent, and in fact had been managed by an American PR firm, not Iraq. Curiously, however, the truth seems to have been clear to Robert Wiener, the former CNN producer who co-wrote ‘Live from Baghdad.’ As he explained to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (11/21/02), ‘that story turned out to be false because those accusations were made by the daughter of the Kuwaiti minister of information and were never proven.’ Unfortunately, HBO viewers won’t know that when they see the film.”(7)

“When Hill & Knowlton masterminded the Kuwaiti campaign to sell the Gulf War to the American public, the owners of this highly effective propaganda machine were residing in another country” — the United Kingdom — writes Sharon Beder and Richard Gosden in PR Watch. “Should this give pause for thought? Does it demonstrate a certain potential for the future exercise of global political power — the power to manipulate democratic political processes through managing public opinion?”(8)

Hill and Knowlton demonstrated 15 years ago that when it comes to facts, the truth can be bought and sold to the highest bidder regardless of the consequences for U.S. soldiers, Iraqi civilians and indeed the idea of whether real democracy could exist under such manipulative circumstances.

Unlike HBO and the corporate media, John A. MacArthur set out to examine these questions. Here’s what he found:

– Both congressmen who chaired the Congressional committee sponsoring the hearings had a close relationship with Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm hired by Citizens for a Free Kuwait, the Kuwaiti-financed group that lobbied Congress for military intervention.

– A Hill and Knowlton vice president, Gary Hymel, helped organize the Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing in meetings with Mr. Lantos and Mr. Porter and the chairman of Citizens for a Free Kuwait, Hassan al-Ebraheem. Mr. Hymel presented the witnesses, including Nayirah. (He later told MacArthur that he knew who she was at the time.)

– Until he started working on the Kuwait account, Mr. Hymel was best known to the caucus for defending the human rights record of Turkey, another Hill and Knowlton client criticized for jailing people without due process and torturing and killing them.

– This Hill & Knowlton exec (Hymel) was also one of the firm’s lobbyists for the Indonesian Government, which had killed at least 100,000 inhabitants of East Timor since 1975. Mr. Lantos’s spokesman says that “Hill and Knowlton’s client list doesn’t concern the Congressman.”

– Hill and Knowlton’s political action committee contributed $500 to Lantos’s election campaign in 1988.

– Mr. Lantos and Mr. Porter chose to house their Congressional Human Rights Foundation, a group they founded in 1985, in Hill and Knowlton’s Washington headquarters! The PR firm provides a contribution to the foundation in the form of a $3,000 annual rent reduction, and the Hill and Knowlton switchboard delivers messages to the foundation’s executive director, David Phillips.

– Hill and Knowlton’s client, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, donated $50,000 to the foundation, sometime after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. (The foundation’s main supporter is the U.S. Government-financed National Endowment for Democracy.)

As MacArthur writes: “Since the gulf war, Hill and Knowlton’s collaboration with the Lantos-Porter human rights enterprise has been strengthened by the naming of the firm’s vice chairman, Frank Mankiewicz, to the foundation’s board in October 1991. Perhaps the Congressmen and directors were impressed by the recent addition of China to Hill and Knowlton’s prestigious portfolio of clients. (The firm’s clients, Indonesia and Turkey, were notably absent from the foundation’s 1990-91 list of human rights ‘activities.’)”(9)

In 1998, Hill and Knowlton found a new client – then-President William Jefferson Clinton — who hired the PR firm to advise him and to polish his image.

The last time the PR firm was involved, by the time their lies were exposed TV newscasters were waxing ecstatic over the rockets’ red glare, computerized “smart-bombs” bursting in air, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, and 250,000 Iraqi people were dead.

A few weeks after the HBO-drama had been aired on TV screens across the United States in December 2002, HBO felt compelled to respond to the intense criticism of its distortions, which were offered by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, among other activist groups. As FAIR reports, “HBO recently added a message to the end of its movie ‘Live From Baghdad,’ clarifying the scenes that seemingly endorsed the fraudulent stories about Iraqi soldiers removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators. The film, a fictionalized account of CNN’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War, leaves viewers with the impression that these events actually happened. HBO’s message, which appears after the end of the credits, reads:

‘While the allegations of Iraqi soldiers taking babies from incubators were widely circulated during the run-up to the Gulf War (the time frame of the drama of our film), these allegations were never substantiated.'”

FAIR concluded: “Since most TV viewers don’t watch the entire end credits, it is doubtful that many people will ever see the clarification. And while it’s helpful that HBO has acknowledged a problem in its film, to say that the claims were ‘never substantiated’ is an understatement. It would be more accurate to note that attempts to confirm the story after the Gulf War uncovered evidence that it was a fabrication.”(10)

The masterful manipulation of propaganda and the lies of the first Gulf War set the stage for the events of the last 30 years, those yellow ribbons streaming from the empty sockets of our eyes.


1. Doug Ireland, Village Voice, March 26, 1991.

2. The use of the Big Lie to manipulate public opinion and neutralize opposition to a particular war was not invented by Bush. See, for instance, James Laxer, “Iraq: US has match, seeks kindle: American leaders have often falsified reasons to attack other countries,” (ActionGreens, Mar. 31, 2001). Laxer is a Political Science Professor at York University, Toronto.

3. John R. MacArthur, The NY Times, Op-Ed, January 6, 1992.

4. ABC World News Tonight, 3/15/91.

5. MacArthur, op cit.

6. Despite the heart-rending testimonies TV viewers in the U.S. were subjected to night after night, in actuality fewer than 200 Kuwaitis were killed in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Compare that to such “peaceful” ventures as the U.S. invasion of Panama the year before, which killed an estimated 7,500 Panamanians; or, a year after the first Gulf war, the 10,000 Somalis killed by U.S./U.N. troops in what was portrayed as a “peace mission” to bring food aid to the allegedly starving region. (In actuality, people in only certain areas of Somalia were starving — those that had been subjected to IMF structural adjustment programs. See, Mitchel Cohen, “Somalia & the Cynical Manipulation of Hunger,” Red Balloon Collective, 1994.)

7. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “HBO Recycling Gulf War Hoax?” December 4, 2002.

8. Sharon Beder and Richard Gosden, “PR Watch,” Volume 8, No. 2, 2nd Quarter 2001. The PR firm has since been working at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry to ban over-the-counter vitamin and nutritional supplement sales in Europe.

9. MacArthur, op cit.

10. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), “ACTIVISM UPDATE: HBO Adds Disclaimer to Gulf War Movie,” January 3, 2003.

Disclaimer to Gulf War Movie,” January 3, 2003.

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