Altering perception

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Mar 27, 2006 2:54 PM

Perception is everything. And when applied to the war in Iraq; perception, public opinion, and a far-reaching press are all variables that could ultimately have a hand in any setback or defeat for U.S. and coalition forces in that country.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all for free speech. If anything, that is the single most important element of our free society. It is one of our essential individual freedoms, and it protects other freedoms.

I do, however, have concerns about false and deliberatively inflammatory propaganda aimed at manipulating audiences. I am not suggesting that any press – good or bad – be quashed. What’s good or bad is open to interpretation anyway. But I think we should recognize the difference between news (including reported facts, news analysis, and opinion) and propaganda.

PROPAGANDA 101

On February 22, a story published in the Italian-based Information from Occupied Iraq suggested that the FOX NEWS Channel (specifically, The O’Reilly Factor) was advancing a “radical new” “conspiracy theory” as to why no weapons-of-mass-destruction have been found in Iraq. The theory is that Russian special operations units may have spirited the WMDs over the border into Syria in early 2003. In fact, this is neither a “radical” nor a “new theory.” Nor is it a “conspiracy theory.” What makes the IFOI story propaganda is that it attacks the information with words like “radical” and “conspiracy.” It pretends it is new information (numerous media companies – including CNN and The Washington Times - were discussing the possibilty back in 2004), and it attacks FOX NEWS, which both the political left and disinformation websites like IFOI regularly do.

Saturday, IFOI published a story referring to U.S. and British troops as “locusts stripping Iraq bare.” IFOI’s website is often linked from other anti-Iraq-war websites, which only increases the size of its audience.

Granted, the difference between news and propaganda is not always as easy to discern as it is with IFOI stories, because one often strays into the realm of the other. But propaganda has a number of identifying features, including the deliberate attempt to manipulate a person’s perception about something, which shapes that person’s thinking, then directs that person toward a specific behavior, which “furthers the desired intent of the propagandist,” according to Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell in Propaganda and Persuasion.

Propaganda also has the ability to take root as “fact” if repeated enough times, even when it is not fact. And according to Jowett and O’Donnell, it is used to discredit or “embarrass an enemy or competitor.”

The latter is clearly evident in the incessant bashing of President Bush as, not only a “liar” and a “criminal,” but “dull-witted” and “stupid.”

Take the far-left San Francisco Gate as an example. It was not enough to criticize the president (as we Americans are blessed with the freedom to do), instead columnist Mark Morford wrote in 2004, “It has always been far too easy to smack BushCo around as being an aww-shucks dumb-guy AWOL simpleton daddy's boy with a low-C average and a painfully inarticulate approach to the world, coupled with an astounding, world-famous ability to mangle both the English language and every foreign policy ever implemented.”

DANGEROUS PROPAGANDA

Though the word has gotten a bad rap over the centuries, propaganda (or propagating ideas or information for a purpose) is in many ways harmless. It is a step-up from persuasion, because the propagandist has a goal, which is beyond simply informing, debating the issues, or sharing an opinion. Propaganda becomes harmful when it maliciously targets individuals or groups (as in the European Jewish population during the 1930s and ‘40s), or when it undermines a cause wherein the loss of that cause (the Global War on Terror, including our efforts in Iraq) would result in great peril to ourselves and others.

Most of the worst forms of the dangerous kinds of propaganda can be found in underground publications. What makes those publications truly dangerous is that by virtue of the Internet, there is no limit to the size of their audience.

One such publication, Jihad Unspun published a piece on March 18, 2006, stating, “We will derive a very simple lesson from America’s Iraq jaunt that if a country wants to avoid a U.S. led invasion, they had better arm themselves to the gills and with nuclear weapons too if possible.” The same piece was published in the alternative Baltimore Chronicle, the Pakistani Tribune, and numerous blogs.

Jihad Unspun (which the U.S. State Department has decried as playing a “major role in disinformation”) also published, as one of their bylined features, a speech by former Vice President Al Gore. A portion of that feature reads: “So long as their big flamboyant lie remains an established fact in the public's mind, President Bush will be seen as justified in taking for himself the power to make war on his whim.”

Does that mean Jihad Unspun’s editors feel some ideological kinship with both Gore and some obscure writer who suggests nations should arm themselves with nuclear weapons? I cannot say for sure, but the observation is difficult to ignore.

Jihad Unspun is a radical e-rag, to be sure, but it is fairly widely referenced, and the publisher is not some cave-dwelling member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle: She’s Canadian Bev Giesbrecht, a former mild-mannered marketing and communications professional who converted to Islam after 9/11.

SWARMER AND STEEL CURTAIN

The day after their call to arms, Jihad Unspun referred to Operation Swarmer, launched March 16, as “not only a needless escalation of aggressive war on a peaceful people but is ethnic cleansing, plain and simple.”

Of course, this assertion is distorted over-dramatization, but it is a propagandized assertion that negatively impacts those who do not understand the dynamics of military operations in Iraq.

Let’s put Swarmer in perspective:

Operation Steel Curtain, which few reporters got worked-up about last November, was a 17-day operation conducted by some 2,500 Americans and 1,000 Iraqis in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. It was aimed at shutting down the ratlines along which foreign fighters were moving in their border-crossings from Syria. Ten U.S. Marines and 139 terrorists were killed, 256 bad guys were captured, and numerous weapons caches were uncovered.

Swarmer, in contrast, was a 1,500-man helicopter-borne operation with no casualties, little if any damage to property, yet U.S. and Iraqi forces nabbed over 100 suspected insurgents and seized 24 weapons caches chocked full of everything from machineguns to surface-to-air missiles.

As I said in Spinning Operation Swarmer, some reporters around the country initially seemed to come unglued when they heard we had launched a large “air assault” north of Baghdad. A few suggested to me we were bombing the Iraqis back to the Stone Age.

Fact is, the operation was no different than any other cordon-and-search operation going on throughout Iraq, except, as Major Joseph Todd Breasseale with Multi-National Corps Iraq told me, “Helicopters made the story sexy.”

Hardly a massive bombing raid or ethnic-cleansing or – as Time magazine suggested – a “fizzle.” But those are the things that have been propagated with few if any, from what I can gather, published retractions.

CIVIL OR GUERRILLA WAR

Though it’s all semantics, those who would foment propaganda are almost insisting we call the insurgency in Iraq a “civil war.” After all, in the sense of perception, a “civil war” smacks of something much larger, much more Oliver Cromwellian or Stonewall Jacksonian, where a country is divided into two, sometimes more, massive parts all of which are waging great battles against one another.

Of course, there is no single definition of “civil war” that stands in all corners, but you can bet the opponents of our efforts in Iraq hope that by labeling the Iraq war a civil war, it will be considered a lost cause and thus a failure of the Bush administration.

Then there are Iraq-war optimists like Charles Krauthammer who take a different tack. In his latest column, he concludes – and with sound logic (not propaganda) I might add – Iraq has been in a state of civil war since the beginning of the insurgency.

Moreover, winning that “civil war” is “doable,” says Krauthammer. “That is not to say it will be done. It is to say that those who have decided that because of ‘civil war’ it cannot be done have been unreasonably panicked by something that has been with us all along.”

So what is an insurgency? I’ve always been taught an insurgency is a guerrilla war. After all, insurgents are guerrillas; and according to my Webster’s unabridged, “not recognized as having the status of a belligerent.”

DISMISSING PROGRESS

But “there is no civil war in Iraq,” Captain Bill Roberts, spokesman for Multi-National Force Iraq, told me Friday. “The targeting of innocent civilians by terrorists is being done to incite sectarian violence, create fear and is a vain attempt to derail democracy.”

The Iraqi people know this, he says. They are fed up with insurgents who are killing women and children in order to influence perception and sway public opinion, worldwide. Consequently, the Iraqi people are increasingly providing solid information about the whereabouts and activities of terrorists throughout the country, even going so far as leading soldiers and police directly to hideouts and weapons caches. That was one of the primary reasons Swarmer, for instance, was so successful.

“Other progress in Iraq seems to be overlooked far too often and the expectations seem occasionally unrealistic,” says Roberts. “Three years ago Iraqis had no voice in their government or their nation’s future.” Unfortunately, few in either the mainstream or the alternative press seem to want to talk about progress in Iraq; and dismissing or focusing minimal attention on something that runs counter to a specific agenda is propaganda in its own right.