What’s the big deal about the U.S. military planting stories in the Iraqi press?

Don’t Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

The U.S. military has a problem.

The people of Iraq don’t like the U.S. military as much as the U.S. military wants to be liked.

One might conclude that Iraqis’ ill feelings toward the U.S. military might have something to do with the violence and disorder that has plagued Iraq since the U.S. military arrived. It seems like every day there are bombings targeting civilians and Iraqi government forces. Sectarian violence is increasing. The economy is struggling, thanks in large part to an Iraqi oil industry that, nearly three years after the U.S. invasion, is still pumping less than it did under Saddam Hussein’s rule.

One might also conclude that Iraqis’ ill feelings toward the U.S. military might have something to do with the fact that Iraq’s U.S. military-supported government has not been able to accomplish much in the way of peace or prosperity-making. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (a Pentagon favorite) recently told the Observer newspaper that the U.S. military is abusing human rights and killing civilians at the same rate that Saddam’s regime did.

One might even conclude that Iraqis’ ill feelings toward the U.S. military might have something to do with the behavior of the U.S. military itself. Being occupied by a foreign military is never pleasant. Being occupied by an undermanned, undertrained foreign military, even less so. Well-meaning or not, our military has accidentally and intentionally killed and wounded countless civilians, raided thousands of homes in the middle of the night hunting for insurgents, and targeted civilians with white phosphorous, even less so. And don’t forget that whole Abu Ghraib thing.

The Pentagon, it seems, doesn’t think any of that is the problem.

It thinks that the problem they’re having making friends with the Iraqi people is a problem of public relations. If only Iraqis heard and saw news stories telling them how awesome we really are, they would think we’re awesome, too.

So, in lieu of paying Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to learn Arabic, the U.S. military has been doing the next best thing: It has been writing pro-U.S. military news articles for the Iraqi newspapers.

Of course, the military didn’t tell the Iraqi newspapers that it wrote the articles. According to the Los Angeles Times, “information operations” soldiers wrote the articles in English, then handed them off to an outfit called the Lincoln Group, a D.C.-based defense contractor that specializes in public relations. According to a press release on its website, the Lincoln Group “worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq” to “counter the lies, intimidation and pure evil of terror with factual stories that highlight the heroism and sacrifice of the Iraqi people and their struggle for freedom and security.”

According to the L.A. Times, however, “worked with the Iraqi media” actually meant translating the articles into Arabic, posing as freelance reporters or advertising executives, and paying newspapers to run the stories, without ever revealing that they were, in fact, Pentagon propaganda.

But wait, there’s more! Soon after the L.A. Times story, Knight Ridder reported that the U.S. Army was running a parallel good-news propaganda program in Iraq. Through the Baghdad Press Club (a group created by the U.S. Army in 2004), the United States has been bribing Iraqi TV, radio and print journalists to run stories about how awesome the U.S. military is.

“So what?” says my Imaginary Voice. “Isn’t swaying public opinion a legitimate part of any war effort? Oh, and you look very handsome today, Andisheh.”

“Thank you, Imaginary Voice.”

Yes, swaying public opinion is important, but didn’t we supposedly invade Iraq to give the country freedom and democracy? To turn around and undermine that by discrediting Iraq’s free media as unwitting agents of Pentagon propaganda is beyond stupid. Thanks to Rummy & Co., any Iraqi journalist who reports something vaguely pro-American can now be written off by skeptics as a paid propagandist.

And what does it say about us? Taken together with the numerous “accidental” killings of Iraqi and Arab journalists by U.S. forces, along with recent reports that President Bush “joked” about bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters, news of our efforts to secretly plant pro-U.S. propaganda in Iraq’s media brands the United States as a giant hypocrite.

The Bush administration supports the free press in the Arab world, but only if by “free” you mean “free of any criticism of this administration.”