by Bill Berkowitz
October 21, 2003
It appears I spoke too soon. In a recent column, I wrote that President Bush's campaign to spread the good news about Iraq was on its last legs. In reality, Phase One of Operation Good News appears to have played poorly, but in the past week the administration has bounced back with a series of high-profile speeches and piercing jabs at the media.
On Friday, October 10, vice president Dick Cheney wowed a Heritage Foundation audience with a reminder that the war on terrorism still has a long way to go. The following day, President Bush's weekly radio address focused on some of the everyday successes of the occupation. By Tuesday, the president was giving interviews to regional television outlets, sidestepping what he believes is the major networks' predilection for reporting only the bad news. At the same time, form letters in support of the administration's policy in Iraq -- purported to be written by soldiers in Iraq -- were published in a batch of newspapers around the country.
By the end of the first days of the new PR offensive, several public opinion polls showed the president regaining some of his lost support.
According to Reuters, President Bush's weekly radio address "hailed the launch of the country's new currency as a sign of economic promise." Removing the image of Saddam Hussein from the Iraqi dinar was "helping Iraqis to rebuild their economy after a long era of corruption and misrule," Bush said. "For three decades, Iraq's economy served the interest only of its dictator and his regime. The new currency symbolizes Iraq's reviving economy."
"With our assistance, Iraqis are building the roads and ports and railways necessary for commerce," said Bush. "We have helped to establish an independent Iraqi central bank. Working with the Iraqi Governing Council, we are establishing a new system that allows foreign investors to confidently invest capital in Iraq's future."
The vice president showed up at the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation to remind his buds that we are still deeply involved with the war on terrorism. Characterized by The New York Times' Maureen Dowd as a "masterpiece of demagogy," Cheney stirred up his audience by telling them that "Terrorists are doing everything they can to gain even deadlier means of striking us. From the training manuals we found in the caves of Afghanistan to the interrogations of terrorists that we've captured, we have learned of their ambitions to develop or acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons."
The vice president once again trucked out the administration's many unproven assertions, including the ones that Saddam Hussein "had an established relationship with Al Qaeda, providing training to Al Qaeda members in... poisons, gases, and making conventional bombs." It is clear that when you're in the middle of a handsomely designed PR campaign, the truth matters little.
By Tuesday, ABC News.com was reporting that the president had tired of the "filter" of news reports coming from Iraq and he was attempting to "go around the press... through television outlets that do not routinely cover the White House."
"There's a sense that people in America aren't getting the truth," he told Hearst-Argyle Television. "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people."
It has also been reported that first lady Laura Bush may be enlisted for the new offensive.
What's next? Might the president pop up as an umpire during the World Series or a referee on Monday Night Football? Will he don an apron and cook up one of his specialty dishes with Emeril? Turn up hawking the 12-inch President George W. Bush Elite Force Aviator doll complete with naval aviator flight uniform on the Home Shopping Network? Will the first couple show up on Friends, The Simpsons or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?
Wherever he and the vice president choose to perform their rhetorical jujitsu, you can bet they won't mention any of the following:
* On October 14, a 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment soldier was found dead in the Euphrates River near Hadithah and two 1st Armored Division soldiers were killed in the Kadhimyah district of Baghdad. On October 13, four British soldiers were wounded in two separate explosions in Basra; a US soldier was killed and another wounded when their Bradley fighting vehicle hit a landmine near Baiji, 220 kilometers north of Baghdad; one 4th Infantry Division soldier was killed and two were wounded in a mid-morning attack; one Fourth Infantry Division soldier was killed in Tikrit at 1:15 PM; U.S. soldiers were ambushed northeast of Baghdad, killing two and wounding two.
* Three hundred and thirty-two U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the March 20 invasion -- nine since October 9. More than 1,830 soldiers have been wounded since the start of the war -- an average of nearly nine a day. To my knowledge, the president has made just one visit to see the wounded.
* The military recently launched an investigation into the unusual number of suicides among U.S. military personnel in Iraq. To date, according to USA Today, at least 11 soldiers and three Marines have committed suicide and another dozen deaths are under investigation. Another 478 soldiers have been sent home from Iraq for mental-health issues.
The number of suicides has caused the Army to be concerned," Lt. Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, psychiatrist at the Army's Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., told USA Today. "They are ... looking at the stresses on the troops, how well the troops are coping and how well the basic principles of battlefield psychiatry are working," Ritchie added.
* According to the Associated Press, there have been at least eight major bombings in Iraq since May:
"Oct. 12: A suicide car bomber attacked the Baghdad Hotel in downtown Baghdad, killing himself and one other person, at least 32 were wounded.
Oct. 9: A suicide bomber drove his Oldsmobile into a police station in Baghdad's Sadr City district, killing himself and nine other people.
Sept. 25: A planted bomb damaged a hotel housing the offices of NBC News, killing a Somali guard and slightly injuring an NBC sound technician.
Sept. 22: A suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint outside U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing himself and an Iraqi policeman who stopped him, and wounding 19 people.
Sept. 9: A suicide bomber targeted a U.S. intelligence compound in northern Iraq, killing three people and seriously wounding four American intelligence officers.
Aug. 29: A car bomb explodes outside a mosque in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, killing more than 85 people including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.
Aug. 19: A truck bomber struck at the headquarters of the United Nations at the Canal Hotel, killing 23 people, including the top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Aug. 7: A car bomb shattered a street outside the walled Jordanian Embassy, killing at least 19 people including two children."
Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, has now acknowledged that he orchestrated the bogus letter writing campaign. The letters -- all written in the same words -- discussed the successes the soldiers experienced in rebuilding Iraq: "The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored, and we are a large part of why that has happened.
"The majority of the city has welcomed our presence with open arms," the letters read.
Prior to Lt. Col. Caraccilo's admission, an investigation by Washington state-based newspaper, The Olympian, found that the form letters "describing their successes rebuilding Iraq" had appeared "in newspapers across the country as U.S. public opinion on the mission sour[ed]." Lt. Col. Caraccilo emailed ABC News that the letter was drafted by his staff and he edited it and reviewed it and then provided it to the soldiers. "Every soldier who signed that letter did so after a careful read," he said. "Some, who could find the time, decided to send their own versions, while others chose not to take part in the initiative."
Counterspin Central put the administration's whining about wanting to hear more good news from Iraq in perspective:
"What if, on September 11, 2001...someone had told us:
'Hey...things are not so bad in the United States. You have the world's largest economy. The most powerful military in the world. A thriving Democracy, clean water, a good health system. Stop focusing on one TINY part of the United States [The New York/Washington D.C./Pennsylvania triangle], where a measly 3000 people were killed...and tens of billions of dollars in destruction was caused... by terrorist attacks using hijacked commercial aircraft.'
"What would have been the reaction of the Bush administration? What would have been YOUR reaction?"
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.