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Sunday, February 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

Propaganda: America's psychological warriors

Special to The Times

Aficionados of the movie "Casablanca" will recall the roguishly corrupt police inspector Louis Renault, played by Claude Rains, who upon "discovering" that gambling was taking place at Rick's club, proclaimed that he was "shocked, shocked."

You had to think of that when the White House announced that it, too, was "shocked" that a Pentagon contractor was bribing Iraqi journalists and posting propaganda in Iraqi newspapers without identifying the source.

The people "shocked, just shocked" were the same people who paid at least two American journalists to write pro-administration columns and produced for compliant local television stations so-called "news reports" that were nothing more than propaganda.

Nor, for that matter, should Congress or the nation's media be "shocked" by the employment of propaganda techniques that are at least as old as World War I, and have been employed by this and other governments since the advent of modern mass media.

This foolishness is small peanuts compared with torture of prisoners or unauthorized eavesdropping, abuses of power that this nation should really worry about.

The major problem with our clumsy propaganda efforts in Iraq is that they are not working, even in a part of the world where journalists are accustomed to being bullied or bought by those in authority.

In this climate, one can hardly blame American military commanders for trying to play by the same rules. Winning hearts and minds works better with a compliant press. But, to a remarkable degree, propaganda methods that have worked in the past have failed in Iraq. Ironically, the Bush administration has been more successful with propaganda aimed at the American people than against Arabs.

Propaganda on a massive, organized scale dates to World War I, and the lessons learned in the often-crude application of WWI propaganda are ingrained in the spin doctors of the electronic world.

At its root, propaganda plays on emotions, often defying reason and facts in order to reach into the psyche of the audience. Propaganda is a mind game — the skillful propagandist plays with your deepest emotions, exploiting your greatest fears and prejudices.

Propaganda researchers Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson define modern propaganda as "mass 'suggestion' or 'influence' through the manipulation of symbols and the psychology of the individual. Propaganda involves the dexterous use of images, slogans and symbols that play on our prejudices and emotions; it is the communication of a point of view with the ultimate goal of having the recipient of the appeal come to 'voluntarily' accept this position as if it were his or her own."

Fear is the best weapon of the propagandist. Fear of another 9/11 attack is stated or embedded into nearly every message produced by the White House. Labeling is another weapon of choice for the propagandist. In World War I, Germans were Huns, Krauts and Boche. World War II produced Japs and Nips, and Vietnam brought us Gooks. Today's label, "terrorist," is seldom missing from White House speeches.

In World War I, German Americans were demonized and in World War II, Japanese Americans were placed in concentration camps. Islamic Americans often feel they are now in the propaganda bull's-eye.

Wartime propaganda inevitably plays on powerful symbols and images. The flag is unfurled, battlefield heroism extolled, and critics reviled as people who hate their country and its troops. Religion is frequently called upon — amazingly, God is always on our side.

Successful propaganda uses elementary tools such as labeling and fear-mongering and repeats a simple message over and over, until it is drilled into the heads of the audience. Once embedded, it often remains long after evidence has discredited it — witness the fact that millions of Americans still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were connected, and an Iraqi was among the 9/11 terrorists.

Wartime propaganda is necessary to keep the home front involved and also to assure young men and women that killing is all right in a proper cause. We teach our children "Thou shalt not kill," but soldiers are trained to kill. Even professional soldiers must be helped to overcome their reluctance to kill. Propaganda reassures them and their families.

Is this wrong? Can propaganda ever be right or is it always a psychological force of evil? Call someone a propagandist, and images of Hitler and Goebbels appear. Yet, during World War II, which nearly every American supported, we used propaganda heavily at home and abroad and it helped the survival of freedom.

Today's conflicts are not always as clear-cut as Western democracy vs. Nazi genocide and Japanese militarism. A war on terror (a sure-fire label) is launched against an amorphous enemy of shadowy characters without a nation or an army. This war will never end (pity the president who announces victory the day before a bomb goes off). A nation constantly on edge will continue to believe much of what it is told, until and unless wolf is cried too many times, or the bearer of the warnings is found to be telling lies or half-truths — which are the marks of much propaganda.

Psychologists Pratkanis and Aronson suggest four stratagem of successful propaganda: 1) pre-persuasion, establishing a climate in which the message will be believed; 2) source credibility, a likable or authoritative communicator; 3) a message focused on simple, achievable goals; and 4) arousing emotions and providing a targeted response.

These stratagem worked for the Bush administration in America through the 2004 election, but the president's credibility is declining as Iraq drags on through its third year.

In Iraq, however, the four stratagems never worked.

Shortly after 9/11 but well before we invaded Iraq, the administration embarked on a "brand America" campaign in the Middle East. Leading advertising agencies were consulted and Charlotte Beers, a legendary Madison Avenue ad executive, was named undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

Beers was only the latest propagandist attempting to penetrate the region. Our efforts date to at least the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, at the height of the Cold War, and they include secret funding of Arabic-language publications and bribery of journalists, basic tactics employed today in Iraq by a new generation of psychological warriors.

Beers relied on her experience in corporate public relations, in which a "brand identity" is selected and relentlessly pursued with attractive, simplistic messages that do not invite feedback. Americans are accustomed to this tactic. It works in the corporate world and all too often in politics.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, a massive campaign to sell America was launched, particularly targeting young Arabs. Feel-good images of Arab Americans and the widespread use of American pop music and MTV-style videos were broadcast while we were preparing to invade an Arab country.

But polling in the region showed U.S. standing at all-time lows. A frustrated Beers told Congress, "We only have one choice in the world of the Middle East and Southeast. We have to buy the media itself." We tried that, too, and polls showed no U.S. gains.

American propagandists were encouraged by some success in Afghanistan, where the lack of any real indigenous media gave the U.S. an open playing field, which it filled with American-subsidized media. The U.S. role was not disclosed. "We have no requirements to adhere to journalistic principles of objectivity," the Army's top psychological operations officer told The New York Times. In Afghanistan, the lack of competition helps American-subsidized media sell the U.S.'s messages.

But Afghanistan is not an Arab state. In mid-December, the State Department ceased publication of the Arabic-language youth magazine "Hi," which had, like subsidized television, radio and newspapers, failed to attract a large Arab audience.

The unlucky Beers has been replaced by Karen Hughes, one of the president's closest confidantes. The Pentagon continues to spend millions on old, failed techniques. In the more-competitive media environment of post-Saddam Iraq, the U.S. has been unable to penetrate with a pro-democracy, good-news message. The Pentagon — after awarding tens of millions of dollars for a private contractor, Lincoln Group, to place pro-American propaganda — has now launched two investigations of the contractor.

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Mahir last April described "a broader picture that makes it clear that the problem that the United States faces in the Arab and Muslim world cannot be tackled by exercises in public relations. It can only be addressed by a genuine change in policies and stands... ."

American propaganda in Iraq and the Middle East fails all of the four stratagem, most particularly that of credibility. We profess human rights but torture Islamic prisoners or imprison them for years in secret locations without charge. We talk democracy but support authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Our thirst for oil raises suspicions of motive, as does our construction of huge military bases in Iraq. Most of all, Arabs see the U.S. as staunchly supportive of Israel's four-decade occupation of the West Bank Palestinian territories.

Even the most skillful propagandists in the world are working against what the Israelis call "facts on the ground." Our actions negate our words and feed the propaganda machines of those who would do us harm. In the Middle East it is they and not we who have credibility.

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