On Native Ground
BU.S.H ADMINISTRATION, SELLING A QUAGMIRE, FINDS FEW BUYERS
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - If the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq has been such a success, why does the Bush administration need to manufacture good news about it?
Because things haven't been going well in Iraq, and the Bush administration knows that the American people know this. That's why the Bush team has cranked up the propaganda campaign to replace the daily reality of chaos and carnage in Iraq with a fantasy image of peace and security.
You may have read about the recent letter-writing campaign by U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Letters were sent to U.S. newspapers by members of the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment. Those letters touted their successes in restoring order in the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk, where the unit is stationed.
Nothing wrong with that, except that the wording of the letters was found to be identical. At least 11 U.S. newspapers, according to the Gannett News Service, printed the form letter.
"The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored, and we are a large part of why that has happened," the letter reads. "The majority of the city has welcomed our presence with open arms."
The above paragraph may be subject to debate, but what isn't debatable is that those words were not written by front-line soldiers, but by the staff of the 503rd's battalion commander.
Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo told ABC News that the letter campaign was his idea. He decided to circulate the form letter, written by his staff, to members of the battalion to read and sign if chose to do so.
Caraccilo said the letter "perfectly reflects what each of these brave soldiers has and continues to accomplish on the ground" and that he circulated the letter to give his troops "an opportunity to let their respective hometowns know what they are accomplishing here in Kirkuk."
As of this writing, we don't know exactly how many soldiers participated in this public relations exercise or how truly voluntary it was. What we do know is that this was a classic case of what's known in the PR trade as "astroturf" lobbying.
The phrase, first coined by former Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, describes something that appears to the untrained eye to look like a spontaneous "grassroots" political movement, but is in reality something that has been concocted and stage managed by a lobbying or public relations firm to influence public opinion on an issue.
"Astroturfing" has been a staple of politics since the 1970s. Virtually every PR and lobbying shop in Washington does it on behalf of their corporate clients and special interest groups to dress up odious public policy in the cloak of "grassroots" support. What is unusual is that the Army has to resort to this sort of manipulation of public opinion.
But the Army is merely following the lead of its civilian leaders, which recently embarked on a PR campaign to convince Americans to stay the course on Iraq.
In the face of the growing perception that the cost in blood and treasure of the Iraq occupation has become too high, the Bush administration has been forced to not only defend its decision to invade Iraq, but to also face the reality that the occupation isn't going to be as painless as first advertised.
Recent speeches by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice are all part of this campaign to convince us that the U.S. is not stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, that progress is being made in improving the security situation, and that Iraq will eventually end up being a model of democracy for the rest of the Middle East.
The reality of what's happening in Iraq - the daily guerrilla attacks, the scores of dead and wounded U.S. soldiers, the estimated 500 murders a month in Baghdad alone, just for starters - mocks the rosy picture that the Bush administration is trying to push at us.
Take the $87 billion that President Bush now seeks for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. That sum is greater than the entire proposed fiscal 2004 budget for the Department of Health and Human Services ($66 billion) or the Department of Education ($53 billion). It's greater than the amount that's needed to meet the projected indebtedness in fiscal 2004 for all 50 states ($78 billion). It's even greater than the amount we spend on homeland security ($36 billion).
Considering the myriad of social and economic problems in our own country, many Americans believe it's wrong to be laying out this kind of money to fix the mess that the Bush administration created in Iraq while totally ignoring our needs at home to pay for big tax breaks for the rich. No amount of spin can change this fact.
After six months, things in Iraq are still a mess. Granted, it would be unrealistic to expect normality to quickly return to a place that has been devastated by two wars and more than a decade of economic sanctions. But it is clear that much still needs to be done and that the U.S. hasn't got the resources to do it alone.
President Bush needs to face the truth about Iraq. A concerted international reconstruction effort, combined with a orderly timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty, is what's needed now. Spin and hype is not going to cut it.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.