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Propaganda’s Hidden Cost

By David M. Debartolo

On the heels of the news that a Pentagon contractor pays Iraqi journalists to write and print articles sympathetic to America, The New York Times reported last week that the same contractor has been paying Sunni clerics in Iraq for propaganda assistance. This recent news is, in many ways, similarly troubling: it threatens to undermine moderate Iraqis and other Arabs who genuinely call for democracy in the Middle East.

Last November, The Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon pays to place both news reports and opinion pieces in the Iraqi media. Some articles are ghost-written by American soldiers and then planted in the Iraqi press; other payments are made to Iraqi journalists who write their own copy but toe the American line.

Reports of this program sparked much well-justified outrage for a wide variety of reasons. Some journalists criticized the program as contrary to the tenets of independent reporting; others noted that such payments undermine many other American initiatives aimed at fostering professional and respected media in the Arab world. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) argued that the program was only the latest of the Bush administration’s attempts to “buy the news,” and Senate Democrats linked the Pentagon’s efforts to a Government Accountability Office investigation which had faulted the Bush administration for preparing news summaries that were published without attribution to the government. In an age of global media, there were also worries that “news” placed abroad might make its way back into the U.S., running afoul of prohibitions on government propaganda in America. Others, including a senior Pentagon official, cited the fundamental credibility gap between an America that proudly champions the freedom of the press and an administration that feels no compunction about subtly subverting it in a foreign country.

But there has so far been little attention to perhaps the most dangerous and detrimental effect of this program, and of the initiative to put friendly Sunni clerics on the American payroll: its impact on Arab perceptions of genuine Arab moderates who are unafraid to criticize their own governments and advocate support for democratization and other American priorities.

Arab moderates who share values or aspirations with the U.S. are often demonized in their own countries as American agents. Such charges are frequently lobbed at Egypt’s Ayman Nour, whose al-Ghad opposition party supports a democratic transition away from Hosni Mubarak’s enduring autocracy, and at Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who has advocated democratization through strengthening civil society organizations in the Middle East. Both were imprisoned by the Egyptian government on what are widely considered to be trumped-up charges, and both received vocal and public support from the U.S.—further shaping these reformers’ images as tools of the Americans.

The news that Iraqi journalists who speak optimistically about the American occupation are on the Pentagon’s payroll will certainly reinforce these types of suspicions. In an environment in which democracy and America are too often equated with suffering and aggression, Arab democrats already have an extremely difficult time convincing their fellow citizens that their ideas are formed from an honest and heartfelt conviction that democracy is the best path towards the future. Because of this Pentagon program, their fellow citizens now have an additional reason to believe that moderate and democratic ideas are foreign-funded rather than organically grown. Likewise, if moderate Sunni clerics are perceived as being agents of the occupation, Iraqis will have all the more reason to trust the radicals.

In one sense propaganda is part of every war effort, and the Pentagon would be derelict if it did not try to influence public opinion in Iraq. Understanding clerics’ viewpoints and seeking their advice is an integral part of that campaign. But instead of paying them to evaluate American propaganda, we should be encouraging and assisting these clerics in making their own case to the Iraqi people.

We often ask how America can win the battle for Arab hearts and minds. It is time to recognize that in the current climate of hostility and paranoia towards the U.S., that is not the right battle to be fighting. We should be searching for ways to convince Iraqis and Arabs that democracy is in their own interest, not just in America’s interest. Only Iraqis and Arabs advocating genuine and organic forms of reform and democracy can prevail in that struggle; formulaic editorials and Pentagon storyboards can never replace authentic Arab voices. A program which casts doubt on the motives of those genuine moderates and democrats is directly contrary to the purpose it purports to serve.

David M. DeBartolo ’03 is a joint law and M.A. in Arab Studies student at Georgetown University. He is co-director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), and he was editorial chair of The Crimson in 2002.

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