LOS ANGELES - 'Lyon, France -- Many administration officials agree that the government's broad strategy to counter terrorism must include vigorous and creative propaganda to change the negative view of America held by many countries."
So reported The New York Times three weeks ago in an article about a proposal being weighed by the Defence Department to have the U.S. military "conduct covert operations aimed at influencing public opinion and policy-makers in friendly and neutral countries."
If adopted, the plan might authorize the world's most powerful armed forces to "pay journalists to write articles favourable to U.S. policies or hire outside contractors without obvious ties to the Pentagon to organize rallies in support of U.S. policies," the Times reported. In friendly countries.
Such as Canada.
It is only a suggestion, and one the White House criticized the day after it went public. But the motivation behind the idea is very real: Washington is sick and tired of being picked on by journalists and politicians in "friendly," democratic countries, especially when the despised Yanks are the only ones doing the heavy lifting in the war on terrorism. The critics bitch and complain, but who do they come running to when their neighbour invades, or the civil war next door spins out of control?
Call it the Hegemon's Burden. Anytime the United States summons itself to what it considers a high moral duty -- the Marshall Plan, the Cold War, the Gulf War, Yugoslavia -- Beltway skin becomes ever more thin. Mobilize forces to act on a principle and out of a sense of responsibility for improving the world, and even your best friends call you a power-gobbling hypocrite. It gets tiresome.
Since the current war started with a devastating massacre on U.S. soil, Washington is several times more sensitive than usual (as are, for maybe the first time, millions of American citizens). There is no question George W. Bush and his top advisors feel they are leading a profoundly moral crusade on behalf of the civilized world.
That goes toward explaining why, since Sept. 11, minor sniping from the likes of Gerhard Schroder, the Chancellor of Germany, and Canada's own Françoise Ducros, have been treated almost like major diplomatic incidents.
Meanwhile, anti-Americanism has come to be viewed as a serious and pressing policy problem, requiring new ground rules to confront. A few months after Sept. 11, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, opened something called the Office of Strategic Influence, designed to "provide news items, and possibly false information, to foreign journalists to influence public sentiment abroad," according to The New York Times. After public criticism and a rebuke from Bush, Rumsfeld closed the office down.
But the irritant remains, and not just inside the Pentagon.
For political officers and other far-flung sub-ambassadorial diplomats, it can grate on the nerves to open up the local paper every morning and read red-faced anti-American lies. It's one thing listening to your employer being called "The Great Satan" -- that's almost a badge of honour -- but quite another having to sit on your hands while provable falsehoods are fabricated and passed around the globe.
I received an e-mail from one such fed-up Foreign Service employee last year, after one of his country's leading dailies printed the latest outrage from the globe-trotting America-basher John Pilger. I had recently challenged the factual basis of this particular piece of Pilge on my Web site, and my diplomatic correspondent was glad someone out there was writing what he was thinking. Wish I could react to every article like that, he said, but it just wouldn't be appropriate.
Well, why not? If the Pentagon and State Department want to improve America's image abroad, to "get America's message out" even in friendly countries, why not leave the military out of it altogether and instead start with the simple step of pointing out obvious lies?
After all, most reasonable people prefer the truth, and if given the choice tend to side with honest folk over liars. If the struggle du jour is going to be drenched in moral rhetoric, and if the rest of the world is going to be "with us or against us," what better thick line in the sand to draw than the one that separates fact from fiction?
Most people who have visited Central and Eastern Europe know someone whose life was changed, during communism, by reading or hearing the revelatory truth of George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm. Vaclav Havel based an entire revolutionary political philosophy on the bedrock of "living in truth" -- i.e., calling lies (and other distortions) "by their proper names," thereby exposing the fragile tissue of deception holding together totalitarian governments' grasp on power.
One of the great virtues of American democracy, especially compared to the closed dictatorships of the Arab world, is the structural bias in favour of truth-telling and transparency. The First Amendment of the Constitution provides for arguably the strongest free-press protections in the world. Wall Street regulations, especially after the most recent round of post-Enron disclosure-tightening, set the global pace for strict reporting standards. At American behest, a key pre-condition for Central European countries to enter NATO was the separation of press and state. When the U.S. prohibited its companies to dole out foreign bribes back in the 1970s, it was the only major country to do so; now scores have followed suit.
As Ari Fleischer himself --Bush's spokesman -- said after the latest propaganda story came out, "The president has the expectation that any program that is created in this administration will be based on facts, and that's what he would expect to be carried out in any program that is created in any entity of the government."
So here's how the administration can easily and ethically improve its image overnight: Point out the lies.
Every morning, when the presses roll in Paris, Riyadh and Beijing, some earnest embassy staffer should be ready to dig through the morning papers and underline every provable lie about the U.S. and its policies. Not emotional propaganda, mind you, but assertions that are demonstrably false. When a full list is compiled, along with thorough corrections, this should be faxed and e-mailed to every editorial office in the country (and to anyone else who wants to receive it), posted on several government Web sites and printed in the little kiosk in front of the U.S. embassy or consulate for casual passersby.
Imagine the jolt to the system in countries like Saudi Arabia, whose government-controlled press spits out lie after America-baiting lie. Imagine the crowds that might gather around diplomatic compounds in Kabul and Havana, or the crossfire generated daily on Fleet Street. Best of all, in theory, the kind of lies that had formerly gone uncontested -- for instance, that U.S. sanctions have killed 500,000 Iraqi babies --- will now be challenged at their source, rather than let fester into entrenched propaganda.
But there's a fatal flaw in this admittedly rose-coloured scenario: The United States would never do such a thing.
Firstly, today's lie might turn out to be tomorrow's fact, and government lawyers are probably not too keen on putting the state in the business of potentially defaming journalists, especially those who live in countries where the burden of proving truth in libel cases is on the defendant. Secondly, the daily corrections are likely to produce unintended consequences, such as extensive lists of accusations not refuted, which government spokesmen could then be forced to waste much of their time fending off.
But the main reason why this bird won't fly is also the most insidious -- Washington's drive for better public relations is motivated far more by expedient operational concerns than anything so high and mighty as telling the truth. The administration would rather manipulate than fact-check, and the Foreign Service reserves the right to cozy up to local despots by bashing America's free press.
One of my favourite examples of this perfidious practice was U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie's July 25, 1990, meeting with Saddam Hussein, when she chose to spend her valuable time attacking a recent profile of the dictator by ABC News' Diane Sawyer. "That program was cheap and unjust," Glaspie cooed, according to Bob Woodward's The Commanders. "And this is a real picture of what happens in the American media -- even to American politicians themselves. These are the methods the Western media employs. I am pleased that you add your voice to the diplomats who stand up to the media." A week later, Saddam overran Kuwait.
The most adept modern practitioner at the media-bash/dictator-flattery was probably Henry Kissinger, who often complained about critical American coverage to human-rights violators such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet. It is worth remembering that many of George W. Bush's senior Cabinet members worked in the mid-1970s under president Gerald Ford, when Kissinger probably had more power over U.S. foreign policy than any non-president in history. Rumsfeld, who has been leading the current propaganda push, was Ford's chief of staff. Vice-President Dick Cheney, who headed the Defence Department during Gulf War I, was Ford's deputy chief of staff. Bush's own father was Ford's CIA director.
There have been hundreds of books written about the 1970s foreign policy establishment, and most paint a picture of secrecy, lies, adventurous realpolitik, abuse of power and constant annoyance at the American media. Soon after Sept. 11, Rumsfeld conjured up those bad old memories with a reference to Church-ill's famous crack about safeguarding the truth in a "tissue of lies." As the Times reported in its story, "Senior Pentagon officials said Rumsfeld was deeply frustrated that the U.S. government had no coherent plan for molding public opinion worldwide in favour of America." Canadians, for instance, are now subjects to be moulded, not friends to be convinced.
There is another approach worth pondering. "I don't know whether directness, truth and the democratic spirit will succeed," Vaclav Havel wrote in his 1992 book Summer Meditations. "But I do know how not to succeed, which is by choosing means that contradict the ends."
Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com