'Brand Freedom': selling slaughter


Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq
By Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

Hodder, 2003
248 pages $19.95 (pb)


"Why does the world hate us?", was the bemused lament by officials after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. However, rather than perform radical surgery on US foreign policy and its imperialist wars of slaughter and oil lust, the US State Department opted for cosmetics, appointing Charlotte Beers as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, fresh from her "brand management" triumphs with Uncle Ben's Rice and Head & Shoulders Shampoo.

With the "America account" under her belt, write Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in their excellent book on US propaganda and the Iraq war, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq, Beers set about marketing the US as "brand freedom" at home and in the Arab and Muslim countries.

It was a tough audience (a 2002 Gallup poll found that favourable attitudes to the US were held by only 25% of people in the Arab Middle East). The punters didn't buy the advertising campaigns showing photogenic Muslim-Americans declaring the absence of prejudice in the US, or the MTV-style show beamed into Iran by satellite, or the travelling exhibitions of Twin Towers ruins.

Popular Islamic opinion remained opposed to US foreign policy because "brand freedom" failed to address the role of the US in the Middle East — military interventions, backing for Israel's aggression, and support for the repressive Arab regimes that guarantee US corporate and strategic interests.

Public relations camouflage for the imperialist aggression against Iraq, however, proved more successful with the non-Muslim US public. John Rendon helped to make it work. A PR consultant to the CIA and Pentagon on Iraqi issues for 10 years, this self-described "perception manager" is on the front line of the Pentagon's "information war" to convey or deny "selected information" to "influence the emotions and objective reasoning" of foreign and domestic citizens. The Rendon Group was responsible for staging the US flag-waving by Kuwaitis when US tanks rolled into Kuwait City in the first Iraq war in 1991, and Rendon got the contract for selling the Afghanistan war in 2001.

Rendon was involved in the Pentagon's new propaganda agency, called (with appropriate Orwellian flair) the Office of Strategic Influence, although this body had to be disbanded in 2002 following the public backlash to its stated intention to provide foreign journalists with "news items, possibly even false ones" on the looming war against Iraq.

The US administration's Office of Global Communications, however, made no such careless admissions. With US$200 million to wage a worldwide PR blitz against Saddam Hussein, the serious business of peddling lies about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorism was under way.

A rare breach in the wall of secrecy surrounding the government and its private PR-fixers was provided when Australian ABC-TV camera operator Paul Moran was killed during the war. His obituary published in Adelaide revealed that his activities "included working for an American public relations company contracted by the CIA to run propaganda campaigns".

The "spontaneous" toppling by US troops of the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April, a symbolic image that was shown repeatedly to celebrate another US "victory over dictatorship", had all the hallmarks of a Rendon Group PR set-up.

The administration had to rely heavily on private PR firms for the Iraq war because its "security" arm could not always be trusted to come up with the goods. The Pentagon put heavy pressure on the CIA to produce analyses more supportive of war, frequently preferring "intelligence" from the Iraqi National Congress (the pro-US exile Iraqi group, given its name and $12 million of CIA funds by the Rendon Group). One former CIA official was appalled — "much of [the INC intelligence] is propaganda. Much of it is telling the Defence Department what they want to hear ... creating cooked information that goes right into presidential and vice-presidential speeches".

Other staples of the propaganda trade were on display during the buildup to war. Many of the "experts" for the media circuit were supplied by the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a spin-off from the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century, formed with White House approval. A host of respectable-sounding conservative think-tanks, with overlapping memberships and interests (rich and right-wing), provided more "experts" on the Middle East and terrorism.

The propaganda peddled by these commentators occurred in an evidence vacuum. Proving that no amount of facts can keep a good lie down, two-thirds of the US population believed the Hussein regime was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and 79% believed that it had nuclear weapons.

A relentless "drumbeat of allegations and insinuations" were hammered out: a meeting in Czechoslovakia between an Iraqi embassy official and an al Qaeda hijacker; aluminium tubes for nuclear weapon production; Iraqi pilotless aircraft capable of reaching the US; uranium sought from Niger. By endlessly mentioning Iraq and al Qaeda, or Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, in the same sentences, the message got through.

Language wrapped the war in the cloak of noble cause. "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was well beyond irony into dishonest perversity. The "Coalition of the Willing" reprised the 1939-45 role of the US in "the good war" against fascism, while Iraq was assigned to another evil Axis. Corporate television networks used the official war code names and phrases in their visual banners and graphics, as if such noble war aims really existed, repeating and reinforcing the government line. Oil was unmentionable.

The US airwaves were patrolled by "Patriotism Police" to ensure pro-war orthodoxy. The country music band the Dixie Chicks were pulled from some radio playlists after its lead singer told London fans they were ashamed to be from the same US state as Bush. Disc jockeys who defied the ban were suspended. NBC TV's flirtation with a liberal program featuring Phil Donohue was knifed just before the war. Anti-war voices were screened out, including retired four-star generals, unimpeachably patriotic but opposed to this particular war.

The 24/7 TV coverage of the war was a fog machine, obscuring background analysis and historical context. In the 1991 Iraq war, University of Massachusetts researchers surveyed the public on their TV-watching habits and knowledge about the Middle East and US policy in the region. "The more TV people watched, the less they knew" was their conclusion. The less TV people watched, the less likely they were to support the war — the corporate media doing its job of imparting propaganda, not information, as intended.

The new propaganda twist to the 2003 Iraq war was the "embedding" of journalists. To reduce the small risk of anything being reported "off-script", journalists were permitted to buddy up close and personal to the invading troops — provided they followed the rules of no independent travel, all interviews to be "on the record" (not allowing for any real thoughts of rank-and-file soldiers) and censorship for "operational security" reasons. This role also encouraged identification by journalists with the US military and resulted in "emotional cheerleading" instead of objective reporting.

"Combat Camera", the Pentagon's own media unit, provided much of the stock footage of "sleek fighter jets, rescued POWs and smiling Iraqis cheering the arrival of US troops". Anything violent and disturbing was sanitised out of existence, such as the Iraqi victims (babies cut in half, children with limbs blown off) of anti-personnel cluster bombs.

Capitalist governments have to devote so much attention to propaganda because imperialist war is such a difficult product to sell. Even dressed up in all the finery of "noble cause" language, surrounded by a posse of lies, sanitised of butchered bodies, and reported by journalists made to feel "one of the boys" — even with all that, people's basic decency and human solidarity, long experience with official lying, and readiness to get out and protest, is the best defence against weapons of mass deception.

From Green Left Weekly, September 3, 2003.

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