Even the most brilliant propaganda technique will yield nosuccess, unless one principle is borne in mind: the messagemust confine itself to a few points and repeat them over andover,” said former Nazi propaganda minister, JosephGoebbels.
Goebbels may have committed suicide on May 1, 1945, but hisgolden rule of “simplicity and repetition” is still thebackbone of any effective mass communication campaign,regardless of whether or not the slogans are true. AsGoebbels said: “A message repeated a thousand times becomesthe truth.”
So too was the case with Iraq. Time and again we were toldthat the war was needed to protect our freedom and security.Saddam had nukes, was in contact with Al Qaeda andthreatened the stability of the world. Today, we know thatSaddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, was notconnected to Al Qaeda and that the intelligence on whichconclusions were based was, at best, jaded. When the warstarted in March 2003, however, one poll showed that 66% ofAmericans thought Saddam was behind 9/11, while 79% thoughthe was close to having nukes. How did they do it?
According to Laura Miller at PR-Watch Quarterly, thetechniques used to sell the Iraq war were classic PRstrategies. “The message is developed to resonate withtargeted audiences through the use of focus groups and othertypes of market research and media monitoring. The deliveryof the message is tightly controlled. Relevant informationflows to the media and the public through a limited numberof well-trained messengers, including seemingly independentthird parties (read: think tanks).”
The campaign to sell the war in Iraq started in 2002, withthe establishment of the Office for Global Communication(OGC) as part of the White House. According to White HouseCommunications Director, Dan Bertlett, its aim was to createthe American foreign policy message, “so no one, not evenDick Cheney, can freelance on Iraq.” The Times of Londonreported that the OGC had a $200 million budget to unleash“a PR-blitz against Saddam.”
The message peddled by government officials and spokesmenwas one of freedom and fear. Of course, the decision to goto war was taken as early as 9/11 (even earlier think many).At that point, however, the administration had other thingson its mind: Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and the question: “why dothey hate us so much?” To Washington, it was clear from thestart that the latter was an image problem: peoplemisunderstood America’s freedom, and its overwhelmingsupport for Israel had nothing to do with it.
To deal with this, shortly after 9/11, Secretary of StateColin Powell appointed Charlotte Beers as Undersecretary forPublic Diplomacy. Her task, according to Powell, was the“branding of US foreign policy.” Known as the “Queen ofMadison Avenue,” Beers made her name with campaigns for Head& Shoulders and Uncle Ben’s rice before heading two ofAmerica’s biggest ad agencies.
Having defined America as “an elegant brand,” she receivedan estimated $500 million as her budget and set out toproduce brochures, booklets and commercials emphasizingfreedom in America, which included a TV campaign “MuslimLife in America,” which (falsely) claimed nothing hadchanged for Muslims after 9/11, and a glossy poster campaignentitled “Mosques of America.”
Most of her budget, however, went to polls and surveys,which by December 2002 showed that her campaign had failedmiserably. All over the Muslim world, the US had gone downin popularity. Beers blamed the Arab media, which she founddifficult to penetrate. “We only have one choice in theMiddle East,” she said. “We have to buy the media.” Sheresigned shortly before the Iraq war for “health reasons.”
Donald Rumsfeld had his own PR star: Victoria Clarke. Shetoo headed several ad agencies and wrote the book Lipstickon a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knowsthe Game.
According to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, authors ofthe book Weapons of Mass Deception, it was Clarke whoemphasized that, for the American public to buy the war inIraq, it was essential to stress a link with rogue nationstates as sponsors of terrorism. The shift from Al Qaeda tonation states was first made in Bush’s State of the Unionspeech on January 29, 2002, when he defined North Korea,Iran and Iraq as “an axis of evil, arming to threaten thepeace of the world.”
In a later stage of the war, and a further attempt tocontrol the message, Clarke masterminded the phenomenon ofembedded journalism and established “Batallion Camera,” anarmy unit of 800 photographers and cameramen, which providedthe world with (positive) imagery, but eventually causedClarke’s downfall when it staged the “heroic” rescue ofPrivate Jessica Lynch.
Finally, even the Pentagon itself worked with a PR firm, theshadowy Rendon Group, widely believed to be the brain behindthe Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi. According tothe Chicago Tribune, since 2001, the Pentagon awarded thecompany at least $56 million in contracts.
It appears “wagging the dog” is now policy.