Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Winning "hearts and minds" in Iraq

It has come to light that the US government has been paying reporters and newspapers in Iraq to publish "good news" stories about the coalition's reconstruction efforts.

I can understand how disillusioned they must be feeling. They go in and destroy the vast majority of the country's infrastructure in order to depose a tyrant in possession of weapons of mass destruction (not that he actually had any) and then award pretty much all the reconstruction contracts to US mega corporations. And what have they gotten for their efforts? A large scale and ever increasing insurgency and lots of bad press, both inside and outside of Iraq.

If you are not willing to radically change your strategy, as the Bush government has repeatedly made clear, what can you do? One option is to continue doing what you are doing and ensure the press tell everyone that you are doing something else, something better.

The only problem with this strategy is that it always backfires and you generally tend to get caught out in the lie, which makes things worse than if you had simply kept on doing what you were going to do anyway and not bothered about what anyone else says or does, particularly when you are the most powerful military force in the world.

Apparently the Pentagon's joint psychological operations support element, without the knowledge of the White House (yeah right) launched the project "in which about 1,000 articles were placed in Iraqi newspapers".

The project was headed by Andrew Garfield, who has the spiffy title of senior director of insight and influence at the Washington-based Lincoln Group, said he was "contractually unable to comment on the company's work for the Pentagon",

But in an exchange of emails with the Guardian, he said: "I have long been an advocate of the use of hearts and minds campaigns ... in support of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. In part my advocacy for this vital activity has been informed by my ... experience of the conflict in Northern Ireland ... I am currently offering my experience and expertise, such as it is, to Lincoln Group."

In response to the allegations and the impending investigation, the Lincoln Group has released a statement to the press. It's so good I want to quote it in full:

TRUTH IN REPORTING

Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq. Our priority has always been, and continues to be, accuracy and timeliness.

Our clients, our employees and the Iraqis who support this effort have maintained a commitment to battle terror with a powerful weapon - the truth.

We counter the lies, intimidation, and pure evil of terror with factual stories that highlight the heroism and sacrifice of the Iraqi people and their struggle for freedom and security. We are encouraged by their sacrifice and proud to help them tell their side of the story.

How good are the Lincoln Group. It seems they are single handedly defending the people of Iraq, and the world, from the "pure evil of terror". I'm not sure what the "pure evil of terror" is, but boy am I glad that I'm being defended from it.

The Lincoln Group's website is a hotbed of fantastic quotes, like the above.

Here's one addressing the concerns of people who wonder how these good upstanding residents of the land of the free can stand to work in "foreign communities where crime, insurgency, terrorism, extreme poverty and instability make communications and operations an extreme challenge".

So, people often wonder "How Can You Work There?" It's not simple, but we rely on our experience, quality people, flexibility, and a low profile to get the job done. The bottom line to our success often comes down to the fact that we live and work inside these communities. Our staff members are experts on the communities they work in and are able to immerse themselves in them unobtrusively. This level of intimacy allows us greater insight and ensures that our teams always have their finger on the pulse of local perceptions and behaviors.

I love these guys. How great is their doublespeak. I say nominate them for the NCTE Doublespeak Award. They even have a section entitled "recent and upcoming news". Now that's telling it how it is, or will be...

Apparently some segments of the Iraqi media are happy with the arrangement and unconcerned about who knows it. Luay Baldawihe, the editor of Ahmed Chalabi's newspaper, Al Mutamar, was quoted in an LA Times article as saying:

We publish anything," he said. "The paper's policy is to publish everything, especially if it praises causes we believe in. We are pro-American. Everything that supports America we will publish."

There's a great post over at Whiskey Bar on the same topic, which quotes extensively from the LA Times article.

Apparently the big debate in the US media isn't about whether planting stories in Iraqi newspapers is morally right or wrong, but whether or not it will be effective. Again from the LA Times article:

Daniel Kuehl, an information operations expert at National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington, said that he did not believe that planting stories in Iraqi media was wrong. But he questioned whether the practice would help turn the Iraqi public against the insurgency.

"I don't think that there's anything evil or morally wrong with it," he said. "I just question whether it's effective."

I'd say that the questions being asked should be reversed, it's not really about how effective it might be, though these types of campaigns never really are very effective, but about the morality of manipulating the media.

I know that media manipulation happens everyday, but schemes like this one and other cash for comment scandals that have come to light are pretty disgraceful.

The Whiskey Bar post hits the mark:

But knowing what we already know about how the Cheney administration and the semi-official media (Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Judy Woodward, etc.) operate here at home, it's not exactly a surprise to learn the same techniques are being used to shape the information "battle space" in Iraq. After all, why should the Iraqis get more democracy than we do? (I suppose one could argue that since it's taken the USA almost 230 years to devolve into the corrupt and decadent republic we've become, the Iraqis should be required to wait in line just like everyone else.)

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