Sunday, December 04, 2005
Exporting a bunch of budding Jayson Blairs simply feeds the unhelpful image of Americans as inept and hypocritical puppetmasters.
Dec. 12, 2005 issue - If you wander into a venerable Washington men's club and glimpse the distinguished older man in the corner, trying to avoid spilling soup on his Brooks Brothers suit, chances are reasonably good that he was in the CIA back in the 1940s and '50s. And if you inquired what he actually did for the CIA during the cold war, and he was inclined to tell you, the answer would likely be that he planted pro-American stories in the foreign press, often with the intention of making sure that elections in places like Greece and Turkey and Indonesia didn't end up with a victory for the communists. Until the mid-1970s, when all of this was exposed, these covert press operations were viewed within the government as a modest plus in the battle for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world.
Is the same true in today's Iraq? Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon was using U.S. troops to write positive articles about Iraq (for instance, heralding the opening of a school), hiring Washington-based contractors to translate the articles into Arabic, then secretly planting them in the Iraqi press with bribes. As long as the stories are accurate, says Mary Matalin, the former aide to Vice President Cheney who often speaks for the Bush administration, they are "absolutely appropriate" in the war of images.
This outsourcing of covert propaganda (everything is outsourced these days) tells us a lot about the two biggest stories around—the venality of Republican Washington and the colossal failure in Iraq—and how they're connected by a shadowy world of global public relations. We got into the war with the help of something called the Rendon Group, a secretive firm that won a huge government contract to "create the conditions for the removal of [Saddam] Hussein from power." (According to an article by James Bamford in last week's Rolling Stone, Rendon invented the "Iraqi National Congress" and put Judith Miller and other reporters in touch with their bum sources on WMD.) Now the PR pork scandal is moving to a different level. This year, the Pentagon granted three contractors $300 million over five years to offer "creative ideas" for psychological operations aimed at what the PR experts call "international perception management." That $300 million will buy a lot of Arabic press releases, but it's unavailable for, say, body armor.
The contractor implicated in the planted Iraqi press story is the Lincoln Group, formerly Iraqex, which boasts to prospective clients that it provides services ranging from "political campaign intelligence" (dirt on your opponents in American elections) to "commercial real estate in Iraq" (so you can buy the choicest properties and tick off the Iraqis even more). It's run by one Christian Bailey, a 30-year-old Oxford-educated fop who helped run the 2004 Republican National Convention, and once cohosted parties in New York limited to those who had graduated from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale (Princeton was apparently beneath them). I tried to learn whether Bailey's British accent reflected British citizenship or more "perception management," but no one from the Lincoln Group would call me back. Other reporters were told that everything about the firm's operations was "classified." Bailey has put a bunch of Bush campaign hacks on the gravy train, finagled security clearances, then assigned them to corrupt the Iraqi media. Democracy in action!
My problem with all of this is less ethical than practical. If it helped build Iraqi democracy or blunted anti-American propaganda, it might even be worth it (though certainly not at those prices). But exporting a bunch of budding Jayson Blairs simply feeds the perception of Americans as inept and hypocritical puppetmasters. If we won't withdraw our troops, can't we at least withdraw our ham-handed propaganda efforts? Can't we stop discrediting the truly independent Iraqi reporters and editors that American journalists are helping to train? Can't we grasp the elemental point that an entirely pro-American Arab media is, on its face, not credible in the region and therefore not helpful to the cause of Iraqi independence?
Obviously the United States needs to do better in countering Arab libels. But the cold war taught us that propaganda works best when it's served straight up—by Radio Free Europe (a hugely positive influence) or by the commercial broadcasters who hawked capitalism behind the Iron Curtain. Some of that is going on in today's Middle East. The beaming of American-produced Farsi programming into Iran, for instance, is working well. It's the culture of secrecy, self-dealing and subversion of truth that's killing us.