Sunday, April 20, 2008
The War That Never Was
The NY Times story detailing how the Pentagon used "military analysts" to spread administration talking points on the Iraq War is sure to dominate the news cycle, and rightly so. The story reveals the fundamental role Information Operations (IO) play in the Pentagon's strategic vision, as I noted here, and as confirmed by this October 2003 report (.pdf) titled Information Operations Roadmap, personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld and kept secret until January 2006, when the National Security Archive at George Washington University obtained it through a FOIA request. While far from a smoking gun, the report makes for interesting reading, especially the passages that recognize the difficulty of maintaining boundaries between foreign and domestic audiences in the contemporary media landscape.
A lot of discussion of the story's revelations is almost certain to center around the Smith-Mundt Act, but significantly, nothing that took place violated its prohibitions, which are on the domestic dissemination of public diplomacy "propaganda" targeting foreign media markets. The same talking points echoed by the "analysts" were being distributed for domestic consumption by official DoD and White House spokespeople. The fact that the "analysts," who were under no direct orders, were not identified as official Pentagon mouthpieces is a matter of personal integrity (or lack thereof) and their network employers' lack of rigor in vetting them.
That's not to say that the operation isn't alarming and repugnant, both from the point of view of the Pentagon and the "analysts." It is. But it's also not very surprising, and falls short, in its flagrant contempt of press objectivity, of this administration's other abuses, mentioned in passing in the article. The major systemic failure, to my mind, was not in the "analysts," who were led astray by human nature and misplaced institutional loyalty, or in the Pentagon, which was faithful to its institutional nature, but in the media which, by failing to vet the "analysts" for independence of viewpoint, betrayed one of its central functions.
To the extent that the operation was successful, it illustrates the Pentagon's savvy appreciation of contemporary media. The "analysts" were "paid by the hit" by the networks, which meant that, like Debka and Drudge, their privileged media positions were dependent on access to their sources more than veracity of their information. The identification of "analysts," as opposed to reporters, as key opinion shapers also demonstrates an understanding that in an age of media saturation, those who frame narratives are more important than those who gather facts.
But insomuch as the information they were peddling was demonstrably false, the operation reveals the extent to which the DoD has failed to integrate the lessons of Vietnam, which it has identified as the media filter slanting public opinion, as opposed to the dissonance between the Department's official line and the reality on the ground. It also leaves the Pentagon wide open to what amounts to a devastating counter-op targeting the very assets (the "analysts" themselves) it would normally deploy to defend itself. As such, the Times story should probably be understood as part of an internal DoD battle for control of the Iraq War "narrative," and the cameo appearances by Gen. Petraeus, in this context, are hardly surprising.
The demonstrable falsehood of the talking points will also ultimately determine whether the DoD crossed whatever statutory lines might apply, since it is forbidden from domestic use of Psychological Operations (Psy Ops) both by executive order and department regulation. For an in-depth treatment of some of the ways IO and Psy Ops have already been employed during the Iraq War, as well as how the lines between foreign and domestic consumption have been blurred and/or exploited, Daniel Schulman's Columbia Journalism Review piece from back in March 2006 is must reading.
Ultimately, the story really drives home the degree to which the Iraq War has existed mainly as a battle between competing narratives, whose defining feature is the fading centrality of fact, and whose defining historical figure may end up being neither George W. Bush nor Saddam Hussein, but Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information who declared America's military defeat even as U.S. forces occupied Baghdad. Launched in response to an imaginary threat, planned to facilitate an imaginary liberation, waged to secure an imaginary peace, and now extended to achieve imaginary outcomes, the administration's version of the Iraq War has from start to finish replaced reality with denial, analysis with wishful thinking, and factual assessments with fairy tales. Indeed, were it not for the deaths of 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that make such an idea obscene, you could almost say that the Iraq War has never really existed at all.