Monday, October 06, 2008

Iraq Fox News the Model

The Washington Post reported on a disturbing new development on Friday of last week, but due to the poor timing of the story's release it has received less attention than it deserves (not only was it released on a Friday, but the day after the highly anticipated vice presidential debate). The WaPo article tells of a massive new propaganda effort undertaken by the Pentagon in Iraq and elsewhere, including, possibly, the United States itself:

The Defense Department will pay private U.S. contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to "engage and inspire" the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government.

...a lengthy list of "deliverables" under the new contract proposal includes "print columns, press statements, press releases, response-to-query, speeches and . . . opinion editorials"; radio broadcasts "in excess of 300 news stories" monthly and 150 each on sports and economic themes; and 30- and 60-minute broadcast documentary and entertainment series.

While the Bush administration has engaged in generating propaganda-masquerading-as-news in the Iraq theater previously, as Marc Lynch notes, this latest initiative contains a distinction:

In contrast to earlier efforts, where there was supposedly always a "produced by MNF-I" label, these efforts explicitly will not have such attribution. As one official explains, "They don't know that the originator of the content is the U.S. government. If they did, they would never run anything."

Maintaining such secrecy is nearly impossible, though, and the damage that inevitably results from the exposure of the scheme is as widespread and significant as it is enduring:

When the payments are exposed, as they inevitably are in today's global media environment (for example, with page one stories in the Washington Post), they then discredit not only the specific messages but also every other pro-U.S. message which will quite reasonably then be dismissed as "paid for by the United States." At our panel this week, [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy] Mike Doran and others suggested that the key to success in the "war of ideas" is building up credible third party messengers. Nothing could be more devastating to the credibility of third party messengers than this kind of program.

At a deeper level, these efforts fatally compromise the long-term objective of building free, credible and independent media as the foundation of a democratic system. I've argued many times that support for free and independent media should be at the center of all efforts to promote reform in the region. Only a free and independent media can provide the flow of information, the transparency and demands for accountability, and the open contestation of political ideas necessary for real political pluralism and democracy. Turning the media into a tool for spreading propaganda compromises not only the very media which we should be promoting but also our own credibility in arguing for a free and independent media.

The other obvious point is that current "war of ideas" and COIN thinking explicity considers U.S. public opinion an important domain of information warfare. The Post quotes from the contract solicitation this passage which should be deeply disturbing: one goal is to "communicate effectively with our strategic audiences (i.e. Iraqi, pan-Arabic, International, and U.S. audiences) to gain widespread acceptance of [U.S. and Iraqi government] core themes and messages." Presenting American audiences as a key target for manipulation through the covert dissemination of propaganda messages should be seen as scandalous, subversive of democracy, and illegal.

Lynch is right that such US-directed propaganda is illegal, but it is not unprecedented - neither for the Bush administration, nor its predecessors. While the Bush administration famously hired journalists such as Armstrong Williams to shill, surreptitiously, for various domestic policies, some of the CIA's efforts during the Cold War make the Bush administration's malfeasance look tame by comparison (both in the CIA's creation of fake media outlets to launder propaganda, and in influencing/coopting decision makers in charge of other major media organs in order to persuade them to disemmanate government dictated talking points). But those were simpler times [sigh].

Even government-paid propagandists refrain from deliberately targeting US audiences, there is no real barrier between foreign news and domestic news. In an increasingly globalized world, stories planted in the foreign press inevitably "blow back" on domestic audiences. A bombshell, or simply a significant story, reported in the Iraqi press, for example, would be picked up by US media outlets reflexively and as a matter of course. In fact, US news outlets would be negligent if they failed to carry such reporting. So the distinction enunciated above might not matter in the end. Such propaganda will infiltrate our discourse regardless.

What is more troubling, however, is what this reliance on propaganda reveals about the so-called democracy promotion agenda of the Bush administration and the Bush team's outlook regarding our public image in the region. Subverting a free and fair press greatly undermines the foundation of democracy in myriad ways. Further, in seeking to control the flow of information by corrupting the media and other opinion makers, the Bush administration casts a shroud of doubt over any outlet that takes a positive view of US actions. Ultimately, in a modern setting where revelations regarding this arrangment are bound to find the light of day, the program has the opposite from intended effect in that it retards the growth of key democratic institutions and weakens American-friendly voices.

Even if undetected, however, it is dubious to what extent programs such as these would be effective in shifting public opinion on key issues. But then, this is an administration that views public diplomacy as an exercise in convincing foreign audiences that policies which are unpopular for tangible reasons are actually just fine - based solely on the magic of slick marketing.

Back in May, I wrote a post discussing some of these themes while reacting to a claim by Paul Bremer that the use of the word "occupation" to describe the presence of coalition forces in the aftermath of the invasion was "in many ways more important" in generating anti-coalition attitudes in the Iraqi population than the physical presence, and associated, actions of the troops themselves. A relevant excerpt from that post follows:

[T]he contention that the use of the word "occupation" and not the actual reality of being occupied by a 150,000 strong army had any measurable impact on our mission (hint: it was the tanks outside the doorway, not the semantics used to describe them) reflects a flawed way of thinking that has led to mishap after mishap for the Bush administration.

Throughout its two terms, the Bush administration has taken the position that America's image in the world (particularly the Muslim world) has been suffering not because of our implementation of wildly unpopular policies, but rather the lack of an effective communications strategy to explain these policies, and American ideals, to the target population. As Fred Kaplan observed:

You've probably never heard of a State Department official named Price Floyd...but his resignation-in-protest, [in March 2007], is as damning a commentary on President George W. Bush's foreign policies as any of the critiques from retired military officers. [...]

[Floyd] explained his reason for quitting...Basically, he was tired of trying to convince journalists, here and abroad, "that we should not be judged by our actions, only our words." [...]

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Bush hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent advertising executive, to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She spent nearly a year producing a slick documentary, which preview audiences greeted with howls and catcalls, before hightailing it back to Madison Avenue. After Beers came Margaret Tutwiler, James Baker's can-do press aide during the presidency of Bush's father, who, it turned out, couldn't do this job, either. Then came Karen Hughes, Bush Jr.'s own former spin-master, who embarked on two disastrous trips to the Middle East early on in her tenure and has lain low ever since.

The problem wasn't Beers, Tutwiler, or Hughes personally. Rather, it was the assumption that led Bush to believe that they were qualified for the job to begin with—the assumption that public relations is a synonym for diplomacy.

The logical extension for one that espouses this way of thinking is to make the facially absurd claim that the Iraqi people would be more amenable to the upending of their society, and the continued presence and interference of our military, if we only had a better way of marketing the situation. In a sense, the reliance on this spin-based strategy of policy making is a product of the Bush administration's infamous preference for the political over policy, reinforced by the domestic electoral success produced thereby (until recently at least). [...]

[It's a problem] when you're trying to convince people whose houses you're searching, whose family members you're arresting (and torturing) and whose relatives you've bombed that you're not really an occupying power, just a guest who brought over some democracy, whiskey, sexy for a slumber party!


So the Bush administration is hoping that $300 million can, at last, make occupation-ade. I remain unconvinced.

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