There’s No Good Way To Sell An Occupation

Last Friday, the Washington Post reported on a new Pentagon plan for seeding Iraqi pro-Americanism:

The Defense Department will pay private U.S. contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to “engage and inspire” the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government.[…]

The military’s role in the war of ideas has been fundamentally transformed in recent years, the result of both the Pentagon’s outsized resources and a counterinsurgency doctrine in which information control is considered key to success. Uniformed communications specialists and contractors are now an integral part of U.S. military operations from Eastern Europe to Afghanistan and beyond.

Marc Lynch writes that such propaganda efforts “fatally compromise the long-term objective of building free, credible and independent media as the foundation of a democratic system”:

Only a free and independent media can provide the flow of information, the transparency and demands for accountability, and the open contestation of political ideas necessary for real political pluralism and democracy. Turning the media into a tool for spreading propaganda compromises not only the very media which we should be promoting but also our own credibility in arguing for a free and independent media. […]

When the payments are exposed, as they inevitably are in today’s global media environment (for example, with page one stories in the Washington Post), they then discredit not only the specific messages but also every other pro-U.S. message which will quite reasonably then be dismissed as “paid for by the United States.”

Lynch notes this as part of a disturbing trend in which public opinion is treated simply as another front in the war. This was precisely the idea behind the Pentagon surrogates program — revealed by the New York Times last April — which provided talking points to former military officers serving as TV analysts, first to sell the invasion by falsely portraying Iraq as an imminent threat, and then later to pretend that all was well even as Iraq collapsed into civil war.

Yesterday, US News reported that the Federal Communications Commission has notified several of those analysts “that it is probing congressional complaints that [they] did not properly disclose their ties to the Pentagon when reviewing the war in Iraq on air.”

According to a copy of the October 2 FCC letter to one of the pundits, the probe was prompted by Reps. John Dingell and Rosa DeLauro, who filed a complaint with the agency after the New York Times reported that some of the pundits were working on or bidding on Pentagon contracts and had also taken free military trips to Iraq. “When seemingly objective television commentators are in fact highly motivated to promote the agenda of a government agency, a gross violation of the public trust occurs,” the duo wrote to the FCC.

While none of the Pentagon surrogates were paid, as far as we know, I’d argue that the effect of these ostensibly objective “experts” acting as propagandists for the defense establishment was pretty disastrous, coming and going. By helping to sell the invasion, they helped get the U.S. involved in a disastrous intervention with no end in sight, and the revelation of their relationship to the Pentagon has further poisoned the discourse about Iraq, and further contributed to cynicism about government.

And then there’s Max Boot, who’s so committed to the Iraq war that he’s there now scouring the countryside to find Iraqis who will testify in support of and indefinite U.S. presence. Is Boot working on behalf of the Defense Department? Or is he just shilling for free? And how can we know?