Wednesday, November 30, 2005

American Military Propaganda in Iraq

Those crazy Pentagon spin doctors are at it again: the LA Times has a story in today's edition describing how the US military has been paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-American pieces in Arabic. The articles are portrayed as the work of independent journalists, but are in fact part of an "information offensive" concocted by military operatives who specialize in propaganda. Not very democratic of them, is it?
Though the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism," since the effort began this year.

The operation is designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military. The Pentagon has a contract with a small Washington-based firm called Lincoln Group, which helps translate and place the stories. The Lincoln Group's Iraqi staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets.
I shouldn't have to say this, but I will: Propaganda is pernicious because it is an attempt to circumvent the democratic ideals of transparency in both government and the press. The least we can do for a nation that is supposed to represent the triumph of neoconservative ideals is to refrain from meddling in their media, and to mark any PR dispatches clearly as such. As an NPR piece on the development notes, talking up democracy from the podium while secretly violating its principles only fuels charges of American hypocrisy that are already rampant in the Arab world. But the National Review's Stephen Spruiell doesn't agree with this analysis:
As for the argument that these operations undercut the trust we need to build with the Iraqi people, I say they wouldn't undercut the trust of the Iraqi people if papers like the LA Times weren't blowing their cover. We need more operations like this in Iraq, and more respect for their classified nature.
The NPR segment reveals two errors in Spruiell's conclusion. First, it notes that the Iraqi papers can identify propaganda pieces by the fact that real journalists sell their work rather than buying placement for it, so the LAT can hardly be blamed for "blowing [the military's] cover." Second, and relatedly, Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel says that such propaganda can negatively affect the overall credibility of American military forces on the ground in Iraq. In other words, material evidence of hypocrisy can have very real consequences for our war operations.

Furthermore, there's another consequentialist case to be made against these kinds of
old-school info-war techniques: the rise of the Internet and worldwide news networks has greatly diminished their efficacy. Even if the LAT hadn't broken the news, eventually some reporter in Iraq would have, since the dissemination methods were widely known anyway. Thus, the high risk that people might have learned about the plan's dirty details outweighed its potential benefits from the start. And the mere fact that the military has to pay for positive press only reinforces the impression that the top brass is trying to cover up a quagmire. I, for one, would much rather see my tax dollars going toward figuring out how to withdraw from Iraq as gracefully as possible, and I think we can all agree that obsolete PR strategies are more than a waste of money--they're a genuine liability.