Bush's Bad News Blues: Administration Cooks Up New Campaign 'To Shine Light on Progress Made in Iraq'
by Bill Berkowitz
September 30, 2003
In its quest to get the $87 billion for military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and boost the president's flagging poll numbers, the Bush Administration is frantically trying to cook up some good news about the situation in Iraq. In the face of the wounding of Aquila al-Hashimi, one of three women on the 25-member Iraq Governing Council, another suicide bombing near the UN headquarters in Baghdad, the killing by an American soldier of an Iraqi interpreter working for an Italian diplomat, a series of "friendly fire" incidents that have claimed the lives of eight Iraqi policemen and several civilians over the past few weeks, and a U.S. casualty count that soared past 300 dead and 1500 wounded, it would take more than Emeril and a host of Food-TV chefs to transform these tragic ingredients into something the public will deem digestible.
Without hundreds of embedded reporters at their beck and call and the cable news networks salivating over military actualities, the administration is having a hard time marketing the occupation of Iraq. In recent weeks, it has come up with a new marketing scheme: selling its policy by having top officials, including the president himself, available for safe and predictable media ops where they tout the "good news" about Iraq.
The Washington Post recently reported that within a span of only a few days, President Bush gave the Fox News Channel a 30-minute interview and a 20-minute on-camera tour; National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice "made a rare appearance on ABC's 'Nightline' and gave interviews to [Brit] Hume and Sean Hannity's syndicated radio program." She also recently appeared on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor."
The president's September 7 prime time speech to the nation, which was intended to reboot flagging pubic support for U.S. involvement in Iraq, failed miserably. According to the Washington Post's Mike Allen: "A parade of polls taken since the... speech has found notable erosion in public approval for Bush's handling of Iraq, with a minority of Americans supporting the $87 billion budget for reconstruction and the war on terrorism that he unveiled."
While the administration is in reverse-the-gloom-and-doom mode, Democratic Party presidential hopefuls keep hammering away at the president's Iraq project at every turn. Senator Ted Kennedy -- one of the few Democrats who is not a candidate -- boldly stated his criticism: "There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud."
The 'good news' and nothing but the 'good news'
"Determined to change the tone of the national debate over Iraq, the White House and Republicans in Congress launched a tightly coordinated effort last week to begin providing the media with stories of American progress in the still-turbulent country," Douglas Quenqua reported in a September 15th PR Week story headlined, "Republicans to shine light on progress made in Iraq."
According to Quenqua, after Bush's address, "the White House began meeting periodically with the leaders of several 'relevant' congressional committees to discuss communications strategy." White House communications director Dan Bartlett met with GOP "message leaders to discuss new tactics, and a portion of the weekly conference call between the Republican leadership and senior White House aides has now been set aside to deal specifically with the issue."
The new campaign is clearly aimed at putting a positive spin on the declining situation in Iraq by pointing to some of the coalition's achievements over the past several months. To do this, it must counter the trend of negative stories flowing out of Iraq. "The illegal war and the botched occupation don't leave a lot of space for happy talk," Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, told me in a recent telephone interview. This new propaganda effort appears to be a case of "the Bush administration grasping at straws. It dragged the nation into war on a leash of lies and now it's entangled on that leash. For those lies, US soldiers are paying with their lives every day and for the loved ones of these soldiers it must be a tremendously galling thing to have their love ones die for this Bush league escapade."
The Bush administrationís latest propaganda effort is eerily reminiscent of President Gerald Ford's attempt to put a happy face on a deepening recession by introducing his Whip Inflation Now (WIN) program, complete with WIN buttons. Ford's October 1974 campaign, however, was widely ridiculed and seen as short on substance. As the recession worsened in 1975, Ford was ultimately forced to abandon it, later admitting that the WIN effort was "probably too gimmicky."
U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), a Vietnam combat veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, recently returned from a Congressional delegation to Iraq, and questioned the media's role in contributing to the chaos there. In a recent op-ed piece for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Rep. Marshall writes that he went to Iraq was because "news media reports about our progress in Iraq have been bleak since shortly after the president's premature declaration of victory... contrast[ing] sharply with reports of hope and progress presented to Congress by Department of Defense representatives."
Now that he has returned, Rep. Marshall maintains that "the news media are hurting our chances [by]... dwelling upon the mistakes, the ambushes, the soldiers killed, the wounded... .[I]t is not balancing this bad news with 'the rest of the story,' the progress made daily, the good news. The falsely bleak picture weakens our national resolve, discourages Iraqi cooperation and emboldens our enemy." He closes with a chilling comment: "We may need a few credible Baghdad Bobs to undo the harm done by our media. I'm afraid it is killing our troops."
A recent MSNBC panel discussion focused on whether the media was deliberately portraying the situation in an overly negative manner. The panel, including two in-studio guests -- one of whom was the requisite retired military officer -- and Special Foreign Correspondent, Dr. Bob Arnot, who was hooked-up from Iraq, concluded that there wasn't enough positive reporting being done from Iraq.
In a report aired earlier, Dr. Arnot interviewed Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator for Iraq, who was effusive in his claims that the positive developments in country included the opening and refurbishing of a number of schools, the fact that universities were open, hospitals were open and functioning, and several significant environmental projects were underway.
On Sunday, September 21, Bernard Kerik, the former New York City Police commissioner, who recently returned from serving as a senior policy advisor to President Bush in Iraq, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that things were moving along quite well in terms of developing and training an Iraqi police force. Blitzer didn't ask him about the recent U.S. "friendly fire" incident that killed eight Iraqi policemen.
Although the security situation in Iraq continues to be chaotic, "the US has accomplished a lot in low-key endeavors such as remodeling schools and making some other infrastructural repairs," Juan Cole, a Professor of History at the University of Michigan, told me in a recent e-mail. "Some towns in the south, like Kut, have been relatively quiet for months, so it is annoying to Bremer et al. that the Sunni Arab guerrilla resistance is using the mass media to make it look as though the entire country is in chaos.
"Obviously, those in the administration want to try to get the word out about what they see as the success stories, but I very much doubt that the PR message will succeed. Freshly-painted schools are just not that telegenic, and explosions of humvees or embassies are always going to trump that sort of thing, especially where US military personnel are being killed or wounded.
"The harsh reality for ordinary Iraqis is hard to hide," Professor Cole, the author of Sacred Space And Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam and the operator of a highly intelligent Web site called "Informed Comment" (http://www.juancole.com/), noted. "There is still 60% unemployment and extensive poverty, electricity is chancy, hurting many businesses, no land telephone lines are functioning in Baghdad, and no 911 emergency services for those who fall ill are available. There is a massive crime wave, with assassinations, car-jackings, burglaries and kidnappings, in Baghdad and Basra, the major cities. Few trust the banks. Women who are in any way public figures are subject to harassment, even assassination."
Prof. Cole also questioned the veracity of the so-called success stories. "Although the universities are 'open,' Basra University was completely looted and lacks basic facilities, including a proper university library (burned) or computers (stolen). I guess they are back to clay tablets.
"And while it is technically true that the hospitals are open, and that large-scale looting of their medicines seems to have been halted, most of them are not operating at an acceptable level, as a number of press accounts have pointed out."
As anyone who watches the cable news channels can attest to, for the past week and a half, the networks are now running with "good news" stories, but it's too early to know whether the administration's propaganda blitz will bear fruit with the public. The Progressive's Matthew Rothschild hopes the media will not to be cowed by statements like Rep. Marshall's and instead focus on the major issues: "If the big story is that there's a guerrilla war wreaking havoc every day in Iraq, then that's the story the media should be telling, regardless of how many happy story campaigns the administration launches."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.