By Amelie Sundberg
For those of you Chomsky-haters, do not be deterred by his praise for Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s bold work, ‘Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq’. This is a refreshing eye-opener into the Bush administration’s ‘public relations’ campaign following the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing War on Terror, particularly the US invasion of Iraq 2003. I have already used a couple of the scandalous propaganda stories to spice up a few lagging dinner conversations over the holidays.
The authors collect convincing evidence to answer questions surrounding notorious war reporting that has been suspected of US propaganda. The first chapter conjures up the vivid scene of Kuwaitis waving US flags after their ‘liberation’ that dominated the US press in 1991, and quickly moves on to point out that US soldiers handed out these flags, effectively staging the famous photographs. Similarly, the authors question the objectivity of the widely circulated images of Iraqis pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein – only around 200 people took part and Reuters long shot images show that the rest of the square was empty. So much for the Washington Post’s headline, “Iraqis Celebrate in Baghdad.”
The book’s strongest selling point is how it details the corporate edge to the administrations PR campaign post-9/11; blaming this business-like approach for losing the ‘battle for hearts and minds’ in the War on Terror. Charlotte Beers, former executive for a corporate advertising firm was appointed undersecretary for state for public diplomacy. The book paints a good picture of the disconnected attempts to ‘sell’ the US to the Middle Eastern ‘consumers’. It is doubtful that US officials trying to persuade local editors in the Middle East to publish positive stories would ever soothe anti-US sentiment or that simply dropping leaflets would divide the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, promoting the message of US freedom clashed with previous US policies of support for repressive regimes, such as Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Interestingly, the Iraq Public Diplomacy Group (set up by the US) coached anti-Saddam Iraqis to look good on talk shows and write opinion pieces as early as 2002. Fabricated stories were also used, such as when a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl falsely told of the story of Iraqi solders pulling hundreds of premature Kuwaiti babes from their incubators. This was published in a press release by Hill & Knowlton (then the world’s largest PR firm) in their ‘Citizens for a Free Kuwait’ campaign.
Rather, ‘shared value’ television advertisements featuring attractive American Muslims going about their daily lives were much more successful as ‘perception management’ tools on the home front. Such shows reinforced the US population’s trust in an accepting and ‘free’ US. Propaganda was so successful that as a result of the Pentagon’s attempts to foster support for the invasion of Iraq, an astounding 66% of US citizens believed that Saddam was involved in 9/11. Further ‘newspeak’ helped to rally the population around the flag. For example, the phrase ‘axis of evil’ was reminiscent of the axis powers during WWII and ‘coalition of the willing’ misleadingly implied that there was enthusiastic support for the war in Iraq beyond that of the US and the UK. Television news coverage of the war was accompanied by patriotic music such as drumbeats, images of the American flag, maps, graphics and constant banners declaring the ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. The politician Jesse Ventura said that the phenomenon reminded him of the Super Bowl.
One of the key scenes that I will take with me from this book is the description of a reporter asking then US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, whether he lied after 9/11 to encourage support for the war effort. Asking not to be quoted, he responded by quoting Churchill: “sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.”
‘Weapons of Mass Deception’ is definitely selective and overtly seeks to cast the Bush administration in a bad light. Some would argue that in so doing, the book is hypocritical by itself propagating a strong anti-Bush message. But let’s be realistic, any book that hopes to act as an exposé has to be presented in this manner – in my view this does not undermine the validity of the arguments being made.
Considering our daily dependence on news I think a fresh dose of re-examining the role of the press is healthy – just read it a pinch of salt. If any of you are cynics like me, this is great read; well researched and offering more than just conspiracy theories.