Monday, April 25, 2005
Perception Management - selling the Iraq war to Americans
"The visual images, of course, are what most people will remember. But it is worth asking whether the toppling of Saddam was as spontaneous as it was made to appear. If this scene seemed a bit too picture-perfect, perhaps there is a reason. Consider, for example, the remarks that public relations consultant John Rendon—who, during the past decade, has worked extensively on Iraq for the Pentagon and the CIA—made on February 29, 1996, before an audience of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician,” Rendon said. “I am a politician, and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager.” He reminded the Air Force cadets that when victorious troops rolled into Kuwait City at the end of the first war in the Persian Gulf, they were greeted by hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags. The scene, flashed around the world on television screens, sent the message that U.S. Marines were being welcomed in Kuwait as liberating heroes.
“Did you ever stop to wonder,” Rendon asked, “how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American, and for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?” He paused for effect. “Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs then.”
Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Rendon or any other PR specialist helped influence the toppling of Saddam’s statue or other specific images that the public saw during the war in Iraq. Public relations firms often do their work behind the scenes, and Rendon—with whom the Pentagon signed a new agreement in February 2002—is usually reticent about his work. But his description of himself as a “perception manager” echoes the language of Pentagon planners, who define “perception management” as “actions to convey and (or) deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning.
… In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover, and deception, and psyops [psychological operations].”
The paradox of the American war in Iraq, however, is that perception management has been much more successful at “influencing the emotions, motives, and objective reasoning” of the American people than it has been at reaching “foreign audiences.” When we see footage of Kuwaitis waving American flags, or of Iraqis cheering while U.S. Marines topple a statue of Saddam, it should be understood that those images target U.S. audiences as much, if not more, than the citizens of Kuwait or Iraq. It became obvious within days of the toppling of the statue that although the Iraqi people largely welcomed the dictator’s downfall, they were not as eager to throw bouquets of flowers at American soldiers as the scene at Firdos Square seemed to suggest.
In Nasiriyah, some 20,000 people rallied to oppose the U.S. military presence on April 15, only six days after the statue fell. “Yes to freedom, yes to Islam,” they chanted. “No to America, no to Saddam.” In other protests, crowds chanted, “No, no, Chalabi” in opposition to Ahmed Chalabi, the U.S.-backed head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Newsweek interviewed a high-ranking U.S. military officer who said he was stunned when he began talking to Iraqis, even anti-Saddam locals, about Chalabi’s credibility. “It’s astonishing how little support he has,” the officer said. “I’m afraid we’re backing the wrong horse.”