Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 16, 2006

In Defense of Propaganda?

Last Tuesday, The Washington Post ran an op-ed by on the value of propaganda by Reuel Marc Gerecht of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He raises some interesting points, but to my mind, avoids some key factors and essentially dodges the central questions raised by the use of propaganda in Iraq. He starts off:

Once again we are confronted with stories about how the Pentagon and its ubiquitous private contractors are undermining free inquiry in Iraq. "Muslim Scholars Were Paid to Aid U.S. Propaganda," reports the New York Times. Journalists, intellectuals or clerics taking money from Uncle Sam or, in this case, a Washington-based public relations company, is seen as morally troubling and counterproductive. Sensible Muslims obviously would not want to listen to the advice of an American-paid consultant; anti-insurgent Sunni clerics can now all be slurred as corrupt stooges.

There is one big problem with this baleful version of events. Historically, it doesn't make much sense...

The main substance for Gerecht’s argument is the use of covert operations by the CIA in the Soviet Union during the Cold War (but his short op-ed deserves a full read before reading this post). He was scheduled for an online chat that day, so after reading his op-ed, I dashed off a quick question for him. As it so happens, he picked mine to run with first. You can read the transcript of the entire online chat here. My question/comment to him was:

Your op-ed conflates several issues, thus obfuscating and dodging the real ethical questions raised by the Pentagon's use of propaganda in Iraq. As the LA Times initially reported on 11/30/05, the U.S. military was "secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops" and presenting them as "unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists." This is far different from helping to support a newspaper without its editors' knowledge and certainly a far cry from translating a pre-existing book and distributing it (you fail to disclose the book or the leader). Parse the specifics if you wish, but for instance, when I hear Robert Novak speak, I expect a particular political slant but I do not expect to hear that he was paid money by an outside entity to espouse a specific view, as was the case this for Armstrong Williams, several thinktank writers (for Abramoff), and apparently, those that wrote for the Pentagon. Advocacy is far different than propaganda… but I'm sure you know this. You touch on this briefly when you state that in past programs the CIA had not "manipulated the final product." This cannot realistically be said of the Pentagon.

While I (and other readers, I'm sure) appreciate a thoughtful, contrarian piece, as of yet you've only provided an interesting sidebar to the real issues. The use of propaganda raises profound ethical issues, especially given our stated goal of spreading democracy in Iraq. The other key issue is, is it effective? You write that one can't gauge the full effective of covert operations, but you suggest they have been highly useful in the past. Have you read *any* (independent) source in Iraq in the Middle East that has praised or defended this use of propaganda? It makes us look, very, very bad, and further undercuts our credibility. Your chief objection to the current operation is that it was botched. Do you really think an Iraqi family still without steady electricity, clean water, or income is going to be swayed by reading an upbeat newspaper article? Do you really think, even *before* the propaganda revelation, such articles were not suspect to Iraqis, who are accustomed to state-controlled news? (Read Morley's world news blog.) If we really want to win "hearts and minds," our energy would be better served focussed on performance, not PR.

While I’m avid reader of the Post’s online chats, this is only the second time I’ve submitted a question, and the first time I’ve had one published. Reading over my quickly-penned question, I’d say it’s pointed, perhaps even slightly hostile, but still attempts to be relatively civil in tone. I felt Gerecht was being somewhat disingenuous in his op-ed, but I wanted to focus on his actual argument (which ducked the central questions).

Gerecht’s response was:

Reuel Marc Gerecht: You bring up several questions. I'll just answer a few. First, I don't think it is ethically or professionally wise for US officials to masquerade as journalists, if that is in fact what happened. I have no problem at all with the US government paying Iraqis, overtly or covertly, to start newspapers that promote democracy. I have no problem with the US government paying Iraqi intellectuals and scholars to write about post-Saddam Iraq and the merits of an open society. I don't see US covert sponsorship as necessarily corrupting---if so, then you have damned an amazing number of the best Western minds of the twentieth century. An examination of Cold War history I think leads one to the opposite conclusion: that covert US aid helped Europeans to establish a free and vigorous civil society. Is this work effective? This is an excellent question. When looking at the enormous range of CA projects in the Cold War, I certainly can't answer that question case by case. These things are cumulative. The evil of Soviet communism certainly by itself was the best teacher, but if we recall, the number of people, particuarly on the left, who did not see this evil, who recoiled from appending the word to the USSR and its satellites, was astonishing. Even in the 1980s, when the nature of the regimes should have been evident to the blind, deaf, and dumb. The debates that the CIA helped provoke--the platforms that it covertly funded--unquestionably, I think, helped to expose this villany and the weaknesses in the arguments on the other side---particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. Best, RMG

I have to give Gerecht credit for a fairly thoughtful response. I wrote him a quick follow-up question which he may have read but with limited time did not get a chance to reply to. I forgot to save a copy of it, but it roughly said:

Thank you for a thoughtful response to my question. I briefly studied in Russia and heard many firsthand accounts of the perils of honest discussion and dissent in the Soviet era (and the Stalinist era is particularly well documented in Conquest’s The Great Terror). I have no problem with funding scholars, which I view as different from propaganda, but the point’s well taken this gets into grey areas. An essential difference emerges, however. We were not the ruling, occupying force in the Soviet Union. We are exactly that in Iraq. Thus, when we use propaganda and the practice is discovered, it’s the not the credibility and support of our opponents we’ve undermining, it’s our own.

This point relates the argument Gerecht poses in his first paragraph, which is something a straw man. Okay, it might not be great if The New York Times readership thinks ill of the Pentagon’s tactics. But the key issue has always been what Iraqis think of them. Gerecht’s main objection to the Pentagon propaganda is that it’s been incompetently handled. He does not have an ethical problem with it (I do). However, in his response to me he also ducks the real issue of effectiveness somewhat by using a faulty Soviet Union analogy and by ignoring the reaction of Iraqis to the propaganda news (everything I’ve read to date suggests it has not been positive!).

Another questioner made one of my key points much better than I did:

Wichita Falls, Tex.: I don't think you addressed the main criticism of the Lincoln Group program: that its anti-free press nature damages our efforts to create a democratic society. When we don't practice what we preach, we look like hypocrites with ulterior motives. All of the CIA programs you mention--RFE/RL, book distribution, and funding of opposition press--were rooted in the idea of and worked to spread free speech. Covert or not, they were honest. The Lincoln Group program, however, puts a false name on our own content. It tells Iraqis that we're willing to lie to them to win them over. Doesn't this run counter to our goals to establish democracy in Iraq?

Reuel Marc Gerecht: The vast majority of CIA programs during the Cold War were covert and in that sense falsely labelled. The historical case for these programs aiding the growth of free speech and free inquiry in post-war Europe is pretty strong. I don't ethically or professionally see why the case should be different in Iraq. I would, however, stop using the Lincoln Group and force Langlety to again develop the expertise necessary to conduct covert operations in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Best, RMG

The most authoritative question/comment, however, was the following:

Washington, D.C.: I'd like to ensure that the discussion clearly delineates between the typical purveyors of propaganda, i.e., psyops or special forces, which is fully expected, and the newer practice of using the news media to spread propaganda. As a former Army public affairs officer and the former director of public affairs for all U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, I am fully against the use of the news media to spread propaganda. The U.S. government, and as an extension its military, must maintain a credible and truthful relationship with the news media. People must continue to believe that when a commander or public affairs officer speaks through the media, he/she is telling the truth.

And in our global information society, using the excuse that only local media are being used for propaganda purposes is no longer valid. Anything published in the news media can find its way to U.S. media, thereby serving to "propagandize" Americans, which is clearly forbidden by U.S. law and DOD regulations.

Reuel Marc Gerecht: I don't think the US military should be involved with founding newspapers or academic foundations or funding journalists. It isn't wise. Best, RMG

Gerecht essentially contradicts the thesis of his op-ed here. You will not find this very reasonable view, one that he decries in his first paragraphs, anywhere expressed in the op-ed itself. Was the op-ed primarily an intellectual exercise in arguing a contrarian view? Is his only objection that the CIA, not the military, should handle propaganda? I would like to account Gerecht a higher standing that apologist for the Bush administration, but I have to wonder. The Soviet analogy simply does not hold up (nor does comparison with Germany or Japan after WWII), nor do virtually any of his points. If one believes that “lies for the public good” are told primarily to benefit the public versus those who choose to withhold information, then one will likely agree with Gerecht. If one believes that the CIA and other government agencies almost always exercise fine judgment and should be allowed great discretion to do most of what they please, then one will agree with Gerecht. However, his argument on its merits is weak.

As another interesting sidebar, George Packer wrote in The Assassin’s Gate that the Bush administration asked the American Enterprise Institute to help draw up postwar plans. He reports:

In October 2002, Leslie Gelb, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, had approached Rice and Hadley with an offer of help. The council and two other think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, would form a consortium that would gather a panel of experts to provide facts and options for the postwar. Their work would be politically palatable, coming from across the ideological spectrum, not insisting on a single plan that would corner the administration. “This is just what we need,” Rice said. “We’ll be too busy to do it ourselves.” But she didn’t want the involvement of Heritage, which has been critical of the idea of an Iraq war. “Do AEI.”

Chris DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, where the administration’s neoconservatives drew their support and many of their personnel, neither consented or refused when Gelb broached the possibility. On November 15th, the representatives of the think tanks met with Rice and Hadley in Rice’s office at the White House. John Hamre of CSIS went in expecting to pitch the idea to Rice, but the meeting was odd from the start: Rice seemed attentive only to DeMuth, and it was as if the White House was trying to sell something to the American Enterprise Institute rather than the other way around. When Gelb, on speakerphone from New York, began to describe his concept, DeMuth cut him off. “Wait a minute. What’s all this planning and thinking about postwar Iraq?” He turned to Rice. “This is nation-building, and you said you were against that. In the campaign you said it, the president has said it. Does he know you’re doing this? Does Karl Rove know?”

Without AEI, Rice couldn’t sign on. Two weeks later, Hadley called Gelb to tell him what Gelb already knew: “we’re not going to go ahead with it,” Gelb later explained, “They thought all those things would get in the way of going to war.” (pp. 111-2)

Now to be fair to AEI, the Bush administration jettisoned several offers to help plan for the postwar as well as several already existing postwar plans from significant sources such as, oh, the State Department. Still, DeMuth’s apparent idea that one can invade a country and not do any reconstruction is astonishing. Flying in the face of history (Germany and Japan after WWII, among others), it seems he is more concerned about a perceived ideology purity than dealing with the realities of the situation. The most appalling aspect of the entire Iraq war remains the adminstration's utter disdain for any real sort of postwar plan, with a complete failure to have a substantive plan A, let alone a plan B for the worst-case scenario.

Along these lines, the final contention of my initial question to Gerecht was that a successful reconstruction (essentially, good performance) was the most persuasive tool we had, and that any PR or propaganda attempts would be useless if Iraqis did not notice improvements in the realities of their lives. I have to give Gerecht credit for entering into a dialogue, however flawed his contribution may be. Not every think tank is monolithic and not every member is of the same mind. Still, I find it interesting that Gerecht works for the same organization that poo-pooed postwar plans. I find it interesting that Gerecht’s op-ed avoids discussion of how the reconstruction is going and instead focuses on perception. I find it interesting that he addresses domestic critics but does not focus on how Iraqis perceive the revealed use of propaganda.

Expanding literacy and making great books and thought available is revolutionary. But the use of propaganda is both unethical and, at least in Iraq, ineffective.

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