Information a vital weapon
[USA Today ran an editorial that criticizes the US military for planting propaganda in the Iraqi press. The editors invited Professor J. Michael Waller to provide an opposing view after the Pentagon refused. Both pieces appeared together on December 7. For the USA Today editorial, click here. Dr. Waller's column is reprinted below.]
Three scandals hide behind the U.S.-propaganda-in-Iraq controversy.
The first scandal is that the United States hadn't been planting favorable, truthful stories in the Arab media all along.
Americans will lose the war in Iraq — and the global "battle for hearts and minds" — if their military, diplomatic and intelligence services don't become more creative than the enemy is about influencing how people think in the Arab world.
That's why the Pentagon's foreign influence activity is so vital to winning in Iraq. It's a fundamental part of supporting the troops.
Until this year, the U.S. government was probably the only force that did not regularly plant stories in the Iraqi media. It left that game to extremists from Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda itself. With predictable and possibly fatal results.
Here's the dilemma: Individual Iraqi journalists sympathetic to the democratic mission are constantly vulnerable to terrorist death squads. Iraqi editors are more likely to publish articles to advance freedom if doing so won't expose their reporters to retaliation. Yet the Iraqi public is more likely to believe local newspapers than our overt editorials or paid advertisements with our disclaimers and foreign-sounding names. The Pentagon found a way around the problem by paying Iraqi journalists to run Arabic translations of truthful, military-authored articles and stories.
Which brings us to the second scandal: Disgruntled Pentagon officials who disagree with policy continue to leak secrets with impunity. Their sabotage of strategic information campaigns after 9/11 ensured that the military had no propaganda strategy against al-Qaeda and none when it went into Iraq.
Paired with it is the third scandal: the hubris and recklessness of some news organizations that pontificate about democratic media principles as they place their struggling Iraqi colleagues in mortal danger.
They may as well tell moderate Arab journalists, "If you cooperate with our troops, we will expose you to the death squads."
All the more reason for our military to keep up the good work. The Iraqi people — and our troops — depend on it.
J. Michael Waller teaches public diplomacy and political warfare at the Institute of World Politics. (The Defense Department and Lincoln Group declined to provide an opposing view.)