Details about the U.S. military’s payments to Iraqi newspapers in exchange for running positive stories about American and Iraqi campaigns against insurgents remain unclear. But the paucity of information has done little to dispel the impression that something nefarious is afoot. Ted Kennedy calls the program “a devious scheme to place favorable propaganda in Iraqi newspapers.” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan isolates the Pentagon by saying the White House is “deeply concerned,” and National-Security Advisor Stephen Hadley echoes him by assuring us that President Bush is “very troubled.” Patrick Butler of the International Center for Journalists denounces the military’s actions as “indefensible.”
We find them eminently defensible. Here’s what is known. Military personnel wrote stories and sent them to Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public-relations firm, which translated them into Arabic and, through intermediaries, paid Iraqi newspapers to print them. The articles’ true authorship was not disclosed. Some articles were published as paid advertisements or opinion pieces, while others appeared as freelance journalism. The Lincoln Group may also have given payments to a small pool of Iraqi journalists who provided favorable coverage.
Nothing here looks especially damning. To begin with, the stories were factual and accurate–and therefore cannot be characterized as disinformation, even if they were one-sided. (Our domestic media would of course never publish a one-sided report.) Some stories were published on the basis of newspapers’ independent editorial judgment. “We are pro-American,” said one editor. “Everything that supports America, we will publish.” Another wryly observed that, had he known the stories came from the U.S. government, he would have “charged much, much more” to print them.
Moreover, some military officers have argued that it was necessary to hide the articles’ authorship in order to prevent publishers from being attacked by terrorists for accepting American submissions. Two of the newspapers now identified as having published the articles have already received threats from insurgents, and one editor has disappeared. Surely the cause of a free Iraqi press is damaged less by American payments to Iraqi journalists than by the assassination of those journalists.
“Influencing public perception
of the fledgling Iraqi government
is necessary to achieving the
stability without which democracy
But it’s worthwhile to step away from particulars and ask what, exactly, is the nature of the military’s supposed offense. The Los Angeles Times, which broke the story, dropped a clue when it wrote:
The military’s effort to disseminate propaganda in the Iraqi media is taking place even as U.S. officials are pledging to promote democratic principles, political transparency and freedom of speech in a country emerging from decades of dictatorship and corruption.
That juxtaposition–disseminating propaganda even as we build democracy–seems calculated to suggest a conflict between the two activities. But influencing public perception of the fledgling Iraqi government is necessary to achieving the stability without which democracy cannot flourish. The Iraqi media are overrun by anti-American viewpoints; some major newspapers are owned by ex-Baathists, while al-Jazeera and the like transmit their venom via the airwaves. The truly surprising thing would be if our military did nothing to counter these perspectives. To the extent that paying Iraqi newspapers to run positive articles makes an insurgent victory less probable, it does not hinder the cause of democracy, but advances it–and saves American and Iraqi lives in the process.
The more general point is that information operations–even psychological warfare–have been a part of combat since the dawn of history, and the rightness or wrongness of those tactics has always depended on the rightness or wrongness of the goals they served. It’s unfortunate the White House hasn’t been able to keep this point in mind: There was no need for it to concede the moral high ground to the military’s critics.
None of this is to deny that we should expect the cessation of information campaigns once Iraq’s democratic institutions are secure. Nor is it to say that the military is entitled to take license in its statements to the American public. It is in the military’s interest for its spokesmen to be perceived as truthful when they speak ex officio, and for that reason the military has traditionally maintained a strict division between its public-affairs staff–charged with disseminating information to the press–and its information-operations personnel. Accordingly, there might be cause for concern if it turned out that public-affairs officers had played a major role in conducting Iraqi information campaigns.
There are also questions about the campaign’s effectiveness: The exposure of an information operation can render it ineffectual or even counterproductive, as may prove to be the case this time. But the risk of exposure is something the military factors into its planning, and is better qualified to assess than are its civilian detractors.
It probably also factors in–although in a better world it would not have to–the delight with which those detractors salivate over any opportunity to slander our project in Iraq. There can be little doubt that they will seize on this story, as on every pseudo-scandal that has preceded it, to impugn the war’s legitimacy. If so, they will reveal themselves as caring less about Iraqi democracy than about destroying American resolve to build it.