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Weapons of Mass Deception

by C/O Diogenes Thursday, Mar. 13, 2003 at 11:11 PM

In the year and a half since September 11 the Bush administration has been waging an aggressive military campaign against real and perceived enemies, coupled with a public relations campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of the world. In Afghanistan, at least, the military campaign has shown some success. The public relations campaign, however, has been an embarrassing failure.

Weapons of mass deception

From Disinfopedia, the encyclopedia of propaganda.

Led into war by U.S. President George W. Bush, nearly 300,000 U.S. soldiers--many of whom no doubt sincerely believe that they are helping to make the world a better, safer place for themselves and their loved ones--are about to risk their lives. Outside the United States, however, few people support the Bush administration's plans, and there is strong popular opposition to war on Iraq.

Most of Europe, the majority of the Arab world, and indeed most nations on earth have been warning that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would undermine democracy and increase the likelihood of domestic and international terrorism, making the world more dangerous. Remarkably, in the face of these warnings, few international viewpoints penetrate any of the major U.S. media or other institutions that hold themselves responsible for informing public opinion.

In the year and a half since September 11 the Bush administration has been waging an aggressive military campaign against real and perceived enemies, coupled with a public relations campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of the world. In Afghanistan, at least, the military campaign has shown some success. The public relations campaign, however, has been an embarrassing failure.

The Bush administration and its multi-national corporate sponsors have already squandered the worldwide sympathy that the United States government enjoyed following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Unilateral U.S. military actions around the world, coupled with the administration's refusal to cooperate on many international issues such as global warming, land mine proliferation, and resource conservation have contributed to rising anti-U.S. sentiments throughout the world. These sentiments are especially strong in countries that are likely recruiting grounds for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Moreover, it is precisely because the U.S. military seems so invulnerable that America's adversaries have chosen to turn its citizens into targets.

Shortly after September 11, President Bush stated bluntly, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."[1] This assumption has become the basis for the Bush administration's international communication strategy, with dangerous consequences.

Self-fulfilling Prophecies

The first example of the Bush doctrine in practice came in his January 2002 State of the Union address, in which he described Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil."[2] In reality, there was not a shred of evidence suggesting any alliance, practical or otherwise, among them.[3] In fact, Iran and Iraq have been bitter enemies for decades. Moreover, none of them had any connection with the terrorists of September 11. The main thing they had in common was that the Bush administration hated them.

Nevertheless, the Bush equation has acquired the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the U.S. administration fans the flames of war, Iraq and North Korea have found themselves thrust for the first time into an alliance of convenience, as North Korea opportunistically uses the administration's preoccupation with Iraq to push forward its effort to develop nuclear weapons. The Iranians also realize that they are next on the administration's list of nations to invade, and they too have begun to respond in kind.

The Bush administration's attempt to link Iraq with Al Qaeda has also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the eve of war with Iraq, Osama Bin Laden emerged briefly from his fortress of solitude to call for jihad against Jews and the United States.[4][5][6] Like the hostilities between Iran and Iraq, Bin Laden's hatred for Saddam Hussein is long-standing and well-known, but thanks to the Bush administration they now see a need to fight together against a common enemy - namely, the people of the United States.

Even traditional U.S. allies in Europe are rapidly becoming enemies, thanks to the Bush doctrine. Even as the administration attempted, through PR gestures, to dispel the world's growing perception of the United States as an arrogant superpower, Donald Rumsfeld helped reinforce that perception by publicly dismissing the anti-war positions of France and Germany as fuzzy-minded thinking from "old Europe." As if that weren't enough to anger Europeans, Rumsfeld went further a few days later and equated Germany with long-time U.S. adversaries Libya and Cuba.[7] If Germany is not "with the United States," in other words, it too must be "with the terrorists."

For supporters of the current U.S. policy, the Bush doctrine has the emotional appeal of all simplistic equations. As a solution to the problems we face, however, it is dangerously misguided. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Bush doctrine is its circular reasoning. If you agree with us, the doctrine says, you are a friend and your views are worth hearing. If you disagree, you are an enemy and your views are suspect. This has made it impossible for the Bush administration to listen to the views of its critics.

Ensuring Consistency

In January 2003, the Bush administration signed an executive order creating an Office of Global Communications (OGC), whose mission is to "ensure consistency in messages that will promote the interests of the United States abroad, prevent misunderstanding, build support for and among coalition partners of the United States, and inform international audiences."[8] To achieve this goal, the OGC is sponsoring a "Global Messenger" e-mail of talking points sent almost daily to administration officials, U.S. embassies, Congress and others. It is also organizing daily telephone conference calls to coordinate foreign policy messages among U.S. government agencies and representatives of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.[9]

These activities may sound rather innocuous. The idea of "ensuring consistency" is a cardinal rule of PR crisis communications, whose practitioners try whenever possible to make sure that all messages flow through a single, controlling channel. In practice, however, ensuring consistency leads to a concerted effort to enforce a "party line" on all messages emanating from the U.S. government, effectively silencing anyone whose point of view contradicts the official institutional message.

The Bush executive order also says that the OGC will "coordinate the creation of temporary teams of communicators for short-term placement in areas of high global interest and media attention." Here, what they are contemplating is the deployment of crisis teams to respond quickly to controversies. The State Department is creating an Islamic media center in London to manage U.S. communications with the al Jazeera satellite television network. The State Department is also dispatching U.S. teams abroad to counter statements issued by the government of Iraq or other critics of U.S. policy.

The administration's obsession with "staying on message" is also reflected in Bush's reluctance to hold press conferences and its insistence on tightly scripting those few conferences it does allow. Activist and journalist Russell Mokhiber says the administration's March 6, 2003 news conference "might have been the most controlled Presidential news conference in recent memory. Even the President admitted during the press conference that 'this is a scripted' press conference. The President had a list of 17 reporters who he was going to call on. He didn't take any questions from reporters raising their hands. And he refused to call on Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, who traditionally asks the first question."[10] White House communications director Dan Bartlett explained, "If you have a message you're trying to deliver, a news conference can go in a different direction." However, "In this case, we know what the questions are going to be, and those are the ones we want to answer."[11]

All of these plans fall within the framework of a "propaganda model" of communication, whose strategies and assumptions are fundamentally contrary to a democratic model. Propaganda consists of attempts to manipulate or coerce the thinking of an enemy or captive population. Some scholars refer to propaganda as a "hypodermic approach" to communication, in which the communicator's objective is to "inject" his ideas into the minds of a "target population." This is quite different from the democratic model, which views communications as a dialogue between presumed equals. The goal of the propaganda model is simply to achieve efficient indoctrination, and it therefore tends to regard the assumptions of the democratic model as inconvenient obstacles to efficient communication.

These may seem like merely a theoretical point, but it has serious practical consequences. The Bush administration's approach to communication through the Office of Global Communications is bound to fail, and it is failing already. In reality, it is impossible to "ensure consistency" and control the channels of communications on an international scale, and glaring contradictions are already evident in the Bush administration's message strategy.

The World's Biggest Focus Group

The first contradiction comes when the Bush administration tries to counter the growing worldwide perception of the United States as an arrogant nation while simultaneously refusing to listen to its critics. Rumsfeld's dismissal of France and Germany as "old Europe" is only one example of the administration's inability to listen to other points of view. The same pattern was also evident following February 15, 2003, when more than 11 million people protested in cities throughout the world to oppose an invasion of Iraq. Conservative pundits disingenuously characterized the protesters as "treasonous" and as "giving comfort to Saddam Hussein."[12] Bush himself airily dismissed the protests, saying that he doesn't "decide policy based upon a focus group."[13]

Bush's statement speaks volumes, both about his disregard for real opinion, and about his inability to think outside the framework of a propaganda model of communication. There is a world of difference between a focus group and a mass citizen protest (which attracted 500,000 people in New York alone, and more than a million in London). Marketers use opinion polls and focus groups to design strategies for selling products and policies to the public, but their purpose is simply to facilitate the delivery of propaganda. Polls are not intended to influence what to do but simply how to sell it. It is inconceivable that Pepsi would let a focus group tell it whether to sell fizzy brown soda. All it wants to know whether the Britney ads are working better than the Ozzy ads. The people who show up at political rallies, however, are trying to send a message about what to do.

Bush's claim that he doesn't rely on focus groups is also spin. U.S. politicians routinely use focus groups, and the Bush administration has been using them both in the United States and abroad. Writing in the Washington Monthly in April 2002, Joshua Green noted that "the Bush administration is a frequent consumer of polls, though it takes extraordinary measures to appear that it isn't." In 2001, the administration spent close to million for polling, using political advisors like Jan van Lohuizen and his focus-group guru, Fred Steeper. "Policies are chosen beforehand, polls used to spin them," Green wrote. "Because many of Bush's policies aren't necessarily popular with a majority of voters, Steeper and van Lohuizen's job essentially consists of finding words to sell them to the public."[14]

Polling is also being used to sell the United States abroad. In May 2002, Franklin Foer reported in The New Republic that the Rendon Group, one of the Pentagon's PR firms, "monitors Muslim opinion with polls and focus groups, and then it generates plans for influencing it."[15]

Charlotte Beers, the former advertising executive who recently resigned her position as U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, also used focus groups in her work. Testifying before Congress in April 2002, Beers promised to "increase polling … in Muslim countries and communities to provide policymakers with information on foreign publics' attitudes, perceptions, and opinions so public diplomacy messages can be more effectively targeted. … These surveys will include regular polls in Afghanistan and in Muslim-majority countries to track public opinion over time. … Other enhancements include increased polling in sub-Saharan Africa on HIV/AIDS, democracy, and the economy; focused polling in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines; research into Western Hemisphere countries, especially Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela and the Caribbean; … regular focus groups and polls in Russia and the former Soviet republics; studies in Europe on missile defense and anti-Americanism; and targeted polling in the Middle East on a variety of issues."[16]

The real problem with the Bush administration is that it doesn't consider anything but focus groups and opinion polls. It never thinks of public opinion as worth considering in its only right, and instead merely uses it to refine the message points that go out each day in its "Global Messenger" e-mails.

Bullet Points

The primary points in the Bush opinion's message on Iraq are easy to summarize. Each point has been carefully "focused" to appeal in a misleading fashion to legitimate public aspirations for peace, safety, freedom, human rights and democracy:

* "Iraq is in cahoots with international terrorism."

The Bush administration has not hesitated to use outright disinformation to deliver this message. In December, CBS 60 Minutes debunked an often-mentioned report that hijacker Mohammed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague prior to the deadly attacks on September 11. Despite the absence of evidence that the meeting took place, administration officials as senior as Vice President Dick Cheney continue to repeat it.[17]

The attempt to fabricate links between Iraq and al-Qaeda also lay at the heart of the scandal in England in February following the disclosure that much of its published dossier on Iraq was actually plagiarized from the Internet.[18] Touted as an analysis by the British MI6 spy agency, the document was actually cobbled together by junior aides to Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's top spin doctor.[19] Several pages had been cut and pasted, right down to the typographical errors, from the internet version of an article by a post-doctorate student.[20]

The dossier was "obviously part of the prime minister's propaganda campaign," said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "The intelligence services were not involved - I've had two people phoning me today to say, 'Look, we had nothing to do with it.'"[21]

In fact, a leaked report from British intelligence explicitly contradicts the government's official position, saying there "are no known links between the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaeda network."[22]

* "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction."

Here, too, the Bush administration's claims are contradicted by prominent analysts within the Western intelligence community. The only reason that this claim continues to circulate is that the administration has been relentless about demanding "message consistency" from government officials.

"Even as it prepares for war against Iraq, the Pentagon is already engaged on a second front: its war against the Central Intelligence Agency," reported Robert Dreyfuss in the December 16, 2002 issue of American Prospect. "Morale inside the U.S. national-security apparatus is said to be low, with career staffers feeling intimidated and pressured to justify the push for war."[23]

In July, Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), who houses the Senate Intelligence Committee, was so baffled by the contradictory assessments of Iraq coming from different agencies that he asked the CIA to come up with a report on the likelihood that Saddam Hussein would use weapons of mass destruction. The CIA concluded that the likelihood of Hussein using such weapons was "low" for the "foreseeable future."[24] However, the CIA analysis added, "Should Saddam conclude that a US-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions. ... Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."[25] In other words, the Bush administration's own push for war is creating the possibility of turning "Iraqi-sponsored terrorism" into yet another self-fulfilling prophecy.

* "Iraq brutalizes its own people."

There is no question that this is true, but nevertheless, the Administration has resorted to lying about Iraqi atrocities. During the buildup to Operation Desert Storm in 1990, the first Bush administration, working closely with the Hill & Knowlton PR firm, circulated false claims that Iraqi soldiers had bayoneted pregnant women and pulled newborn infants from hospital incubators, leaving the babies to die on the cold hospital floor.

Why tell lies about Iraqi atrocities when there are so many true stories? One reason is that many of Saddam Hussein's worst crimes were committed with U.S. support, both before and after Operation Desert Storm. In the 1980s, Donald Rumsfeld and other officials in the first Bush administration treated Hussein as a valued ally while he gassed Kurds and launched human wave assaults against Iran. Rather than face these realities about Iraqi human rights violations, the White House prefers to dwell on false stories or on stories that are selectively told to omit mention of the U.S. role.

The National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute on international affairs, recently published a series of declassified U.S. documents detailing the U.S. embrace of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s, including a photo and video footage of Donald Rumsfeld personally shaking Hussein's hand. More important than the handshake, the documents show that the United States supported Saddam even though he had invaded neighboring Iran and even though the United States knew that Iraq had long-range nuclear aspirations, abused the human rights of its citizens, and used chemical weapons on Iranians and its own people.[26] As the Washington Post reported in December 2002, "The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush authorized the sale to Iraq of numerous items that had both military and civilian applications, including poisonous chemicals and deadly biological viruses, such as anthrax and bubonic plague."[27]

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.

* "This is not a war at all; it's a "liberation" movement."

This message is embodied in very name of the latest White House PR front group, the "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq." However, this message too is contradicted by many opponents of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Iraqi people have learned through bitter experience not to trust U.S. promises of "liberation." During Desert Storm, the Bush administration called on the Kurds to rise up and rebel, but when they did, realpolitik took precedence over morality. The United States may hate Saddam Hussein, but it has no desire to see Kurdish aspirations realized, particularly when Turkey, an important U.S. ally, regards the Kurds as dangerous terrorists. The Kurds, who made the mistake of taking the Bush administration at its word, were shocked when it pulled back and allowed Hussein's regime to brutally crush their uprising. There is no reason to expect a different result this time. As preparations for war neared completion in January 2003, "American officials angered representatives of the Iraqi opposition, much of which is Shia and Kurdish, at a meeting in Ankara, Turkey by revealing that America planned a military government for Iraq but would keep in place most of the Sunni establishment that had served President Hussein."[28]

* "We're not against Muslims."

Officially, the Bush administration has taken pains to insist that Islam is a "religion of peace." The Council of American Muslims for Understanding, an organization created by the U.S. State Department, has been trying to impress Muslims abroad. It has a website and a glossy brochure titled "Muslim Life in America." However, these words contrast the anti-Muslim vitriol coming from Bush's strongest supporters in the conservative movement. On February 1, 2003, the Conservative Political Action Committee held its annual meeting in Washington while vendors at exhibition booths sold Islamaphobic paraphernalia such as a bumper sticker that said, "No Muslims - No Terrorism."[29]

During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Bush was forced to issue a statement disavowing anti-Islamic comments by prominent conservative Christian leaders. No words, however, can alter the fact that prominent Christian supporters of the president, including his advisors, regard Muslims as "worse than Hitler" (to use the words of Pat Robertson, whose Christian Coalition was a key source of voters that got Bush elected).[30][31] A February 15, 2003 CCA conference was dubbed an "Islamaphobic hate-fest" by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Speakers included Daniel Pipes, who says "increased stature, and affluence, and enfranchisement of American Muslims … will present true dangers to American Jews," along with Joseph Farah, editor of, who says "Islam has been at war with the West, with Christianity, with Judaism … ever since the days of Muhammad." Another speaker at the forum, Boston Herald columnist Dan Feder, railed against Islam, characterizing it as a religion which, "throughout its 1,400-year history, has lent itself well to fanaticism, terrorism, mass murder, oppression and conversion by the sword."[32]

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Muslims in other countries are skeptical when the Bush administration talks of peace, love, and understanding. In December, Charlotte Beers launched an advertising campaign in Arab countries. Titled "Shared Values," the campaign was to showcase the religious tolerance and friendly treatment of Muslims in the United States. The campaign was abruptly terminated after a month, however, when several Arab governments refused to run the ads and focus groups said the ads left them cold.[33]

The Power of Propaganda

PR Watch has frequently reported on manipulative and deceptive propaganda practices of governments and corporations. One of PR's dirtiest little secrets, however, is that it is often fails to influence the "hearts and minds" of its "target audiences." The Bush administration has failed at persuading the Arab world to support its policies toward Iraq. It has failed also in Europe and throughout the rest of the world, and its hold on public opinion in the United States is shaky at best.

In fact, propaganda is often more successful at indoctrinating the propagandists themselves than it is at influencing the thinking of others. The discipline of "ensuring message consistency" cannot hope to succeed at controlling the world's perceptions of something as broad, sprawling, and contradictory as the Bush administration's foreign policy. However, it may be successful at enabling people like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to ignore the warnings coming from Europe and other quarters. As our leaders lose their ability to listen to critics, we face the danger that they will underestimate the risks and costs involved in going to war.

One indication of the Administration's credulity regarding its own propaganda is its reliance on information coming from the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC was created in the early 1990s with support from the Rendon Group. At the time, the first Bush administration hoped that by sponsoring a political opposition group, it might prompt Iraqi military leaders to overthrow Saddam Hussein in a "zipless coup." This never happened, but the INC remains active today. Its head, Ahmed Chalabi, openly dreams that the United States will install him as the country's next ruler.

Writing in the American Prospect, journalist Robert Dreyfuss noted in December 2002 that the Bush administration prefers the INC's analysis of conditions inside Iraq over the analysis coming from scholars and even from intelligence agencies like the CIA. "But most Iraq hands with long experience in dealing with that country's tumultuous politics consider the INC's intelligence-gathering abilities to be nearly nil," Dreyfuss wrote. "The Pentagon's critics are appalled that intelligence provided by the INC might shape U.S. decisions about going to war against Baghdad. At the CIA and at the State Department, Ahmed Chalabi, the INC's leader, is viewed as the ineffectual head of a self-inflated and corrupt organization skilled at lobbying and public relations, but not much else."[34]

Following the First World War, Austrian journalist Karl Wiegand made an interesting observation. "How are nations ruled and led into war?" he asked. "Politicians lie to journalists and then believe those lies when they see them in print." This may seem cynical, but it was true then, and it is true today.

No one with any knowledge of history or politics would expect today's leaders to behave in a perfectly moral fashion. Few politicians have ever done that, and perhaps they never will. However, we should expect them at the very least to know what they are doing, and as Bush administration traps itself within the mirrored echo chamber of its own propaganda, the danger increases that it will miscalculate, with catastrophic consequences for the United States and the world.

Related articles

* The Project for a New American Century is a neo-conservative think tank whose plan for military intervention in Iraq appears to be a blueprint for the Bush administration's foreign policy. Its report, titled "Rebuilding America's Defences: Strategies, Forces And Resources For A New Century," was published in late 2000 before Bush became president, and well before before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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A Great New Reference Diogenes Thursday, Mar. 13, 2003 at 11:16 PM
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