Don't Panic! February 27 2002

Terror tips for the terrified

Is the government really planning to spread lies in the international press to influence world public opinion?

The New York Times reported last week that the Pentagon's new Office of Strategic Influence was preparing to mount an international public relations campaign aimed at promoting pro-American public opinion and government policies. That's not a bad idea. Years of inflicting 'N Sync, David Hasselhoff and cruise missiles on the rest of the world have left our overseas reputation battered.

What scares the bejesus (and the be-Allah) out of people here and around the world is the suggestion that, in order to influence opinion, the Pentagon would actively spread lies through the international press, and via e-mail and Internet chat rooms.

Naturally, that suggestion has caused a bit of a stir — particularly in the media. Being used as an unwitting mouthpiece for government lies isn't exactly every reporter's idea of quality journalism. In addition, several officials in the Pentagon, speaking off the record, stated their fear that officially sanctioned deception of the public would completely undermine trust, both domestically and abroad, in anything the U.S. government had to say.

Lots of people agree that the U.S. has a bad reputation overseas, and that we should do a better job of countering the skillful propaganda machines of Osama bin Laden and other Muslim fundamentalists. But much of our bad reputation abroad isn't the result of bad public relations — it's the direct result of our policies. In the Middle East, we support Israel with billions each year in military aid. Arabs throughout the Middle East despise the way Israel treats Palestinians in the occupied territories and therefore despise us because we support Israel. You can't punch a guy in the face over and over again, and expect his friends to like you. We can't have it both ways — and no amount of PR magic is gonna change that.

Maybe I'm crazy, but if we're so intent on making world opinion more pro-American, the most effective way to do that would be to adopt military, diplomatic and economic policies that are more beneficial to people abroad. Helping to rebuild Afghanistan may be a step in the right direction, but you can hardly blame an Afghan whose house was blown up by an American bomb for having mixed feelings about the U.S.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney "reassured" the world that the government would always tell the truth, and that the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence was not allowed to lie to promote pro-American opinion. But Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense (his job includes carrying Rumsfeld on his shoulders at press conferences and during chicken fights at the Pentagon swimming pool) declined to rule out that the OSI might pay outside firms to do the lying.

Oh, I get it. We'll always be truthful, but we might pay people to lie on our behalf. That's reassuring. By that logic, one could argue that bin Laden is innocent of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks because he ordered other people to do it. Clever. And the Pentagon wonders why people don't always like the U.S. government. We lie a lot, here and abroad — think Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica.

But it's actually somewhat reassuring that there's obvious resistance within the Pentagon itself to using a government agency for the express purpose of lying to people.

E-mail questions to andisheh at creativeloafing.com.??

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