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Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq

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Nukes and chemical and biological weapons may be capable of wreaking a lot of havoc, but when it comes to war today, they aren't the real big guns. The real powers, it turns out, are the PR agencies.

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

Reviewed by Kari Lydersen

Wednesday, August 13 2003, 11:24 PM

Nukes and chemical and biological weapons may be capable of wreaking a lot of havoc, but when it comes to war today, they aren't the real big guns. The real powers, it turns out, are the PR agencies.

Winning the hearts and minds of not only residents of the "enemy" country but even more so, America's own citizens, as well as the populations of other countries around the world, has been a key part of military strategy in every major conflict of the past 15 years.

This is nothing new - slick and professional public relations campaigns go back at least as far as World War I if not farther, and obviously the battle to influence U.S. public opinion was a major factor in the Vietnam War.

But the extent to which private, corporate public relations firms have become major defense industry players is a relatively recent development, and one that has yet to be reported widely or deeply in the mainstream media. A new book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, writers and editors of the non-profit journal PR Watch, aims to change that.

Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq uses extensive documentation to prove what many in the general public are starting to suspect -- that the Bush administration knew full well that there was no viable evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or ties to Al Qaeda, yet pulled out all the stops to convince the public otherwise in a rush to war that had been planned long before the Sept. 11 attacks. Even for seasoned skeptics and critics of the Bush administration, the audacity of the repeated lies and deceptions outlined in the book are shocking.

Along with the play by play narrative of the PR war against Iraq, the book traces the history of PR's role in the U.S.'s involvement in the Middle East from before the Gulf War. Among other things Rampton and Stauber describe the infamous concocted story about Iraqis yanking hundreds of Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them on the floor to die. This testimony, given by a teenage girl who turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., was proven completely false after being feverishly reported by everyone from mainstream media to human rights groups.

As it turned out, there weren't even enough incubators in Kuwait to make the story feasible. But more chilling than the release of the story itself is the way, a decade later, the fact that the government and PR agencies cooked up the story has faded from public consciousness while the actual story itself has not.

It seems all too likely that current skepticism aside, concocted and manipulated stories from the recent invasion of Iraq -- the sensationalized rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, for example -- will be remembered just as the administration wants them to be. Already, current media stories about Lynch tend to make not even a mention of the fact that Iraqi doctors, the BBC and other investigators basically debunked the U.S. government's version of her story.

Weapons of Mass Deception also does a skillful job of showing how public relations has been used to cover up the fickle nature of American relations with Middle Eastern countries and regimes. For example, the public might not be as accepting of a war if it were clearer that the dictator we are bombing today was recently our friend; that the feared weapons of mass destruction he is supposedly harboring were in fact sold to him by the U.S. in the first place.

Again the babies in incubators story comes into play here. The authors note that if the U.S. wanted to demonize Saddam Hussein's forces for brutalizing innocent children, there were plenty of true examples for them to use. The majority of the 5,000 Iraqi Kurds he gassed in the village of Halabja in 1988 were women and children, for example. But these and many other spectacular atrocities occurred while Saddam was actually being supported by the U.S.

"The problem was that the Halabja incident and other uses of chemical weapons occurred while Iraq was receiving military aid and economic support from the United States," the book says.

A similar bait and switch, friend-turned-foe strategy was central to American interventions in Latin America and Asia throughout the Cold War, and there too public relations played a major role in keeping U.S. citizenry supportive and confused. But one could argue that the PR industry and the government's use of it today has gotten much slicker and more systematic.

Weapons of Mass Deception documents the specific PR agencies hired by the U.S. and American allies like the Saudis during the Iraq war and the buildup to it, and exposes the vast amounts of money involved in these PR contracts. For example, shortly after the Sept. 11th attacks, the Saudis launched a PR campaign to disassociate themselves from the attacks and convince Americans of their support for the war on terrorism, employing U.S. PR firms including Qorvis Communications and Burston-Marsteller to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per month.

Stauber and Rampton also describe how despite the huge expenditures of money and brain power on PR, these efforts have often backfired, especially where attempts to reach Arab and other foreign populations are concerned. The book describes the debacle of the rise and fall of Charlotte Beers as the U.S.'s PR guru for the invasion of Iraq. She was known as the "queen of Madison Avenue" for her campaigns promoting, among other things, Head & Shoulders shampoo and Uncle Ben's Rice.

Beers was hired as the Defense Department's Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and launched into campaigns including a series of ads showing idyllic lives being led by Muslims in the U.S., called "Shared Values," and "Next Chapter," a supposedly hip, MTV-style T.V. program aimed at youth and broadcast by satellite into Iran.

Beers had a budget of over half a billion dollars to launch these campaigns around the world and to conduct extensive polls and surveys to gauge Arab opinion of the U.S. But, the book notes, these polls were meant only as a measure of the ad campaign's success rather than a genuine effort to hear the opinions of Arabs.

"Notwithstanding all the money being planned for 'listening' activities, there was little evidence that the U.S. had heard or was prepared to respond in a substantive way to any of the strongly-expressed opinions coming from the Arab world."

These same polls showed Beers's efforts to be a miserable failure, and she eventually stepped down "for health reasons" amidst a cloud of disgrace.

While many industry insiders apparently tried to pin the failure of the campaign on Beers's own lack of skill, the reality is that her initiatives failed to win hearts and minds because of the same overwhelming arrogance that has long plagued foreign policy and created anti-American sentiment around the globe. That is, Beers's campaigns focused on fluffy superficial aspects of life for Muslims in the U.S. or celebrations of American culture while completely ignoring the issues that are deeply embedded in the psyches of Arabs around the world -- the history of American intervention in the Middle East, the situation in Palestine and the exploitation of other countries' resources by the U.S. Though living in the sound bite driven, MTV-friendly U.S. might lead one to think otherwise, sugary pop songs and heartwarming commercials aren't enough to erase decades of pain and hate.

Weapons of Mass Deception also delves into the fascinating topic of "doublespeak," the process often used by officials in wartime to avoid lying while obscuring the true meaning of what is being said. The "shock and awe" tactic used in Iraq is a perfect example -- while this military term is actually defined as causing maximum physical and structural damage in a short time to stun the enemy into submission, the Bush administration spun it in more psychological terms, minimizing any allusions to actual casualties and creating the impression that Iraqi forces would be so impressed with U.S. might that they would simply lay down their arms and surrender.

Weapons of Mass Deception also includes various amusing examples of reporters calling Donald Rumsfeld or other officials on their use of doublespeak, selective amnesia or other deceptive practices, for example when a CNN reporter confronts Rumsfeld with the existence of CNN videotape showing him shaking Saddam Hussein's hand in 1983.

Though these examples of the failure and transparency of the administration's public relations efforts are out there, the fact is that the way things are going, these incidents will continue to be buried in the public consciousness by the ongoing onslaught of "weapons of mass deception."

Unless there is a massive public outcry of people unwilling to buy the hype, the U.S. seems intent on continuing a foreign policy parallel to the most common corporate strategies for dealing with scandal and dissent -- putting its resources into altering public perception rather than unpopular behavior.

"Rather than changing the way we actually relate to the people of the Middle East," the book says, "they still dream of fixing their image through some new marketing campaign dreamed up in Hollywood or Madison Avenue."

Weapons of Mass Deception is available from Penguin 

Copyright © 2003 by Kari Lyderson. All rights reserved.

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