The 'Prop-agenda' War


In an interview with Arabic broadcaster al-Jazira, President George W Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in 2001 that she did not want U.S. networks to show Osama bin Laden tapes because "it was not a matter of news, it was a matter of propaganda."

Which suggests the question, is the U.S. government above propaganda?

Well, it is not. As former Salvadoran guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos put it, winning wars is also about winning the minds of people.

Throughout history, propaganda has been used in warfare to do exactly that; and the U.S. has also practiced it extensively, but with its own twist, that of a democracy that has a free press and therefore has to disguise propaganda better. It is one of history's ironies, for example, that former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, who was re-elected as a peace candidate in 1916, soon thereafter led the U.S. willingly into World War I. That was achieved thanks to propaganda.

Contrary to what Rice's words suggest, two recent books imply that a more intensive, perhaps more deceitful, use of propaganda was in place recently. An embedded, Internet-age propaganda, piggybacking on brand name credibility. Real-time transmission, real-time deceit. It means that if you use CNN or The New York Times to selectively present segmented realities, then the effectiveness of propaganda is tremendously increased by these trademarks.

In their widely quoted book "Weapons of Mass Deception," Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber argued in 2003 that the U.S. government used the shock of the September 11 attacks to justify an invasion of Iraq. Bush counter-terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke further denounces President George W Bush for using the attacks as a pretext for the war in his book "Against All Enemies" published last March.

For propaganda expert Nancy Snow, in terms of purpose "not much has changed [since Wilson's times]. Propaganda is still used more as an antecedent to war; in other words, if war is the paint, then propaganda is the paint primer that makes possible the total devotion of the public to the just cause of the state in wartime."

Once the masses have chosen sides, "propaganda is used to reinforce existing attitudes more than it is used to change attitudes", Snow, assistant professor at the College of Communications at California State University said.

"The primary change is in technology rather than method," says Randall Bytwerk, a specialist in propaganda and professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "It is now possible to spread much more information much faster."

A second change is that the mass of information has made it more difficult for citizens to make sense of what is going on, he said. "The result is that, perhaps even more than in the past, we look for shorthand ways of making sense of it all."

In their book Rampton and Stauber also imply that many media outlets cooperated in the deception. Embedded journalism showed a partial, patriotic image of the "war on terrorism" during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Almost 600 journalists were "embedded" with U.S. and British troops in the campaign against Saddam Hussein, reporting what they saw from the coalition lines.

The "war on terror" was the starting point for a standardization of set phrases like "weapons of mass destruction", "axis of evil", "shock and awe", and "war of liberation." Simple, repetitious and emotional, so the propagandistic concept does not get lost in the mist.

To forge the message, the Pentagon acknowledged hiring a Washington public relations firm, the Rendon Group. It was Rendon who provided the U.S. flags for hundreds of Kuwaitis to wave when U.S. troops entered Kuwait City in the first Gulf War in 1991, Rampton and Stauber say.
In an article titled "How to Sell a War" published in the magazine In These Times last August, the authors suggest that some of the images of the war in Iraq may have been cooked by public relations specialists and "perception managers."

While that could be true, Bytwerk says "such an approach is usually not necessary, and a bad idea. It is not necessary because there is usually so much information that something can be found to fit. It is a bad idea because, if found out, which it often is, it reduces the overall credibility."

This war was more "about not seeing images", contends Snow. "People in the U.S. didn't see the same war as people outside the U.S. or as did viewers of al-Jazira – it's all about the disparate perceptions by the news media in the U.S./Middle East and Europe."

When on Apr. 9, 2003 the statue of Saddam was finally brought down in Baghdad's Firdos Square, U.S. media commentators rushed to assign iconic connotations to the toppling, ranking it alongside the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the protesters opposing tanks at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. "Jubilant Iraqis Swarm the Streets of Capital", Rampton and Stauber quoted The New York Times as saying. The main papers and television channels in the U.S. showed the same scene, and proffered similar comments.

But a BBC photo sequence of the statue's fall displayed a sparse crowd of approximately 200 people, they observe; a Reuters long-shot photo of Firdos Square showed that it was nearly empty, sealed off by U.S. tanks.

Their article also cites various examples of slapdash reporting, including The New York Times' Judith Miller's, which came under scrutiny since it was revealed that now out-of-favor Iraqi leader Ahmad Chalabi was one of her primary sources.

The New York Times admitted in a May 26 editorial that after reviewing their Iraq coverage "we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged."

The awkward articles depended at least in part on information from Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles set on "regime change" in Iraq, people whose integrity has come under public debate in recent weeks, the paper said.

There are many types of propaganda, and people related to it. There are "spin doctors" who seek to ensure that others interpret an event from a particular point of view. The U.S. Department of Defense "Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms" speaks of "perception managers" in charge of "psychological operations", a concept originated by the U.S. military that combines "truth projection", security and deception, designed to "convey or deny selected information to foreign audiences" and their leaders to "influence their emotions and objective reasoning" ultimately resulting in actions favorable to the originator's objectives.

"We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy's side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace," said Walter Lippmann, former advisor to president Wilson. Lippmann, a journalist and a renowned expert on modern mass communications theory, believed that perception often is more important that reality. Many followed suit.

There are also differences between the propaganda deployed in totalitarian regimes, where the sole source of information is the state, and in democracies, where the media and other sources, including non-governmental organizations, can counterbalance the government propagandistic efforts.

But Bytwerk, author of several books on Nazi and Marxist propaganda, says that "even Joseph Goebbels lied rarely. He preferred to mislead by selection or by ignoring unfavorable information rather than by outright fabrication. I think fabrication can sometimes be justified to deceive the enemy, but not to deceive one's own public." With satellite and cable television, and the Internet, both one's own public and foreign audiences have access to almost the same information, language being sometimes the sole barrier.

Bytwerk says also one must distinguish between "incomplete" and "inaccurate." "That is, it is surely a bad idea for even independent media to publish information that would reveal military plans or provide useful information for the 'enemy'. Incompleteness is probably a good thing at times [of war]," he says.

"On the other hand, inaccurate information is usually bad for everyone concerned," he adds. "The hard thing, even for journalists, is to digest the huge amount of complicated information in a way that is both accurate and fair. Independent journalists often have their own biases."

U.S.: Incompleteness or Inaccuracy?

The government rationale behind the invasion was: Saddam had backed the Sept. 11 attacks; he was also hiding weapons of mass destruction; the Iraqi people would eventually see the U.S. as their rescuer. Now the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has reported "no credible evidence" that al-Qaeda and Iraq cooperated in attacks against the U.S. Banned biological, chemical and nuclear weapons are yet to be found. Questioned by the commission, Clarke said that Bush was so anxious with launching a war on Iraq that they missed the growing terrorist threat from al-Qaeda. But in an April 2003 opinion survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 63 percent of people interviewed said they believed the war in Iraq would help the war on terrorism.

"You may wonder why it is that a majority of Americans still link Saddam to 9/11," says Snow. "The reason for such a belief is because the American people were repeatedly told by the president and his inner circle that Saddam's evil alone was enough to be linked to 9/11 and that given time, he would have used his weapons against us. With propaganda, you don't need facts per se, just the best facts put forward. If these facts make sense to people, then they don't need proof like one might need in a courtroom."

According to Snow, the U.S. government succeeded in "driving the agenda" and "milking the story" (maximizing media coverage of a particular issue by the careful use of briefings, leaking pieces of a jigsaw to different outlets, journalists gradually piece together the story and their sense of discovery drives the story up the news agenda). "That's also very commonly practiced," she says. "When a country goes off to war, so goes its media with it. The news media were caught up in the rally-round-the-flag syndrome. They were forced to choose a side, and given the choices, whose side did they logically choose but the U.S.?"

For Snow, the funny thing is that "the American public succumbed more to the stupid propaganda tricks than did the rest of the world. I think we are a gullible public. We wanted to believe the best about ourselves and it seemed beyond our capacity to imagine that we would go to war with a country without a solid reason."

"At the beginning of the conflict, there was a less critical examination of the facts because we were a nation still overcoming the 9/11 syndrome and seeking vengeance," she says. "You did not have a vigorous public demanding the truth. If anything, I think we tend to point the finger too quickly at the news media when the rest of us should have been putting pressure on the media and the government to provide us with a well-grounded rationale for war with Iraq other than that Saddam is evil and must go. The public accepted Bush's simplistic rationale and so the media skipped along to the same tune."

While the U.S. government campaign had an impact on the U.S. public, the "perception management" was a failure at influencing foreign audiences. According to Bytwerk, "It is far easier to make propaganda at home than abroad. One has more credibility at home, and much more in common with the audience. Although Nazi propaganda was not completely believed by Germans, they believed what their government said far more than the British believed German propaganda, for example. All things being equal, most people want to believe they live in a good country."

In spite of the worldwide sympathy caused by the Sept.11 attacks, "given the U.S. influence in the world, a fair percentage of the world's population will be suspicious no matter what the U.S. does, whether for good or bad reasons," Bytwerk says. "For example, many people are quite willing to believe that the U.S. government itself knew of or planned the Sept. 11 attacks."

Events also conspired to create a public relations catastrophe.

Iraqis started rallying to oppose the U.S. military presence; the Shi'ites joined Sunni Muslims in fighting against the U.S. occupation (when news reports made us believe that the Shi'ite majority in Iraq, crushed by Saddam's regime, would welcome the U.S. troops); then Chalabi, previously tagged by some "analysts" as the "George Washington of Iraq", fell into disgrace when it was reported that he had leaked information to the Iranians. Finally, pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, showing U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, created a global outrage.

Both the Bush administration and al-Qaeda typecast the struggle for the mindset as a fight between good and evil. And it looked like U.S. opponents learned a few communication tricks, including the well-timed release of Saddam and bin Laden tapes.

In April, four Italians were captured in Iraq. The Arabic television channel al-Arabiya showed three of the hostages (one of them, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, had already been executed) apparently in good health. In the footage, the kidnappers promised to liberate them if the Italians joined in a demonstration against the presence of foreign troops in Iraq and against Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's stand on Iraq.

"The kidnappers' message seeks not to influence Iraq but Italy," said ruling party Forza Italia's leader in the Senate, Renato Schifani. Through "terror" and "barbaric behavior" the captors "are trying to manipulate the next [European] elections" and "divide the country."

On the eve of Bush's visit to Rome and the European parliament elections, thousands of people gathered in Rome, headed by the kidnapped soldiers' relatives to protest against the war.

Snow thinks they are "not necessarily using propaganda techniques more successfully, but rather they are waking up to the reality that if you want to challenge the status quo, then you need to study and apply similar techniques of mass persuasion."

Some of the most effective propaganda campaigns are the prop-docs like "Fahrenheit 9/11," she says. "Michael Moore and other filmmakers have figured out that in order to try to beat them, you need to use the same game board playing pieces. All of the rightwing critics of Moore's latest film say that he plays loose and fast with the facts, as if government leaders don't do the same when it's convenient to them, says Snow.

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