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    Middle East
     Apr 29, 2008
Page 1 of 2
DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA
Selling the president's general
By Tom Engelhardt

You simply can't pile up enough adjectives when it comes to the general, who, at a relatively young age was already a runner-up for Time Magazine's Person of the Year in 2007. His record is stellar. His tactical sense extraordinary. His strategic ability, when it comes to mounting a campaign, beyond compare.

I'm speaking, of course, of General David Petraeus, President George W Bush's "surge" commander in Iraq and, as of last week, the newly nominated head of US Central Command (CENTCOM) for all of the Middle East and beyond - "King David" to those of his peers who haven't exactly taken a shine to his reportedly "high self-regard". And the campaign I have in mind has

 

been his years of wooing and winning the American media, in the process of which he sold himself as a true American hero, a Caesar of celebrity.

As far as can be told, there's never been a seat in his helicopter that couldn't be filled by a friendly (or adoring) reporter. This, after all, is the man who, in the summer of 2004, as a mere three-star general being sent back to Baghdad to train the Iraqi army, made Newsweek's cover under the caption, "Can This Man Save Iraq?" (The article's subtitle - with the "yes" practically etched into it - read: "Mission Impossible? David Petraeus Is Tasked with Rebuilding Iraq's Security Forces. An Up-close Look at the Only Real Exit Plan the United States Has - the Man Himself").

And, oh yes, as for his actual generalship on the battlefield of Iraq ... Well, the verdict may still officially be out, but the record, the tactics and the strategic ability look like they will not stand the test of time. But by then, if all goes well, he'll once again be out of town and someone else will take the blame, while he continues to fall upwards. Petraeus is the president's anointed general, Bush's commander of commanders, and (not surprisingly) he exhibits certain traits much admired by the Bush administration in its better days.

Launching brand Petraeus
Recently, in an almost 8,000-word report in the New York Times, David Barstow offered an unparalleled look inside a sophisticated Pentagon campaign, spearheaded by former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, in which at least 75 retired generals and other high military officers, almost all closely tied to Pentagon contractors, were recruited as "surrogates".

They were to take Pentagon "talking points" (aka "themes and messages") about the president's "war on terror" and war in Iraq into every part of the media - cable news, the television and radio networks, the major newspapers - as their own expert "opinions". These "analysts" made "tens of thousands of media appearances" and also wrote copiously for op-ed pages (often with the aid of the Pentagon) as part of an unparalleled, five-plus year covert propaganda onslaught on the American people that lasted from 2002 until, essentially, late last night. Think of it, like a pod of whales or a gaggle of geese, as the Pentagon's equivalent of a surge of generals.

In that impressive Times report, however, one sentence has so far passed unnoticed; yet, it speaks the world of Petraeus, and of how this administration and its chosen sons have played their cards from the moment Bush mounted a pile of rubble on September 14, 2001, at Ground Zero in New York City and began to sell his incipient "war on terror" (and himself as commander-in-chief). From that day on, the propaganda campaign, the selling war, on the American "home front" has never stopped.

Here, in that context, is Barstow's key sentence: "When David H Petraeus was appointed the commanding general in Iraq in January 2007, one of his early acts was to meet with the [Pentagon's retired military] analysts." In other words, on becoming US commander in Iraq, he automatically turned to the military propaganda machine the Pentagon had set up to launch his initial surge - on the home front.

Think of the train of events this way: In January 2007, pummeled in the opinion polls, his Iraq policy in shambles and the Republican Party in electoral disarray, Bush and his advisors decided to launch a last-minute home-front campaign to buy time on Iraq. It was, the president declared in an address to the American people, his "new way forward in Iraq". In Vietnam-era terms, the plan itself involved a relatively modest "escalation" of 30,000 troops, largely into the Baghdad area - that being all the troops the overstretched US military then had available. It gained, however, the resounding nickname, the "surge". (That word, strangely enough, had essentially been pilfered from the heart of "insurgent", a term previously used to designate the enemy.)

By then, of course, the president himself was a thoroughly tarnished brand, not exactly the sort of face with which to launch 1,000 ships or even 30,000 troops into a self-made hell against the urgent wishes of the American people. Instead, he pushed forward his all-American general - the smart, bemedaled, well-spoken, Princeton PhD and counterinsurgency guru, beloved by reporters whom he had romanced for years, and already treated like a demi-god by members of both parties in both houses of US Congress.

He became the "face" of the administration (just as American military and civilian officials had long spoken of putting an "Iraqi face" on the American occupation of that country). In the ensuing months, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out, the surging Brand Petraeus campaign only gained traction as the president publicly cited the general more than 150 times, 53 times in May 2007 alone. Never has a president put on the "face" of a general more regularly.

Now, let's return to that single sentence from Barstow. Having been put forward by Bush as his favorite general and the savior of his Iraq policies, Petraeus seems to have promptly turned to the Pentagon's favored military "analysts" for a hand. The general's initial surge, that is, was right here at home via those figures the Pentagon had embedded in the media and liked to refer to as its "message force multipliers".

Let's keep in mind that one of those figures, retired US Army General Jack Keane, a "patron" to Petraeus during his rise in the ranks, was, along with Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, an "author" of, and key propagandist for, the "surge" strategy, as well as the head of his own consulting firm, on the board of General Dynamics, and a national security analyst for ABC News.

So, in case you were wondering why the hosannas to Petraeus nearly reached the heavens and why the "success" of the "surge" was established so quickly in this country (despite four years of promises followed by disaster that might have called for media caution), look first to those surging retired generals and to the general who had already established himself as a military brand name.

And let's keep in mind that the Times' Barstow has pulled back the curtain on but one administration program of deception. It is unlikely to have been the only one. We don't yet fully know the full range of sources the Pentagon and this administration mustered in the service of its "surge". We don't know what sort of thought and planning, for instance, went into the transformation of any Sunni insurgent who didn't join the new Awakening Movement and become a "Son of Iraq" into a member of "al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia" - or, more recently, every Shi'ite rebel into an Iranian agent.

We don't know what sort of administration planning has gone into the drumbeat of well-orchestrated, ever more intense claims that Iran is the source of all the US's ills in Iraq, and directly responsible for a striking percentage of US military deaths there. Recently, according to the New York Times, "Senior officers in the American division that secures the capital said that 73% of fatal and other harmful attacks on American troops in the past year were caused by roadside bombs planted by so-called 'special groups'." (A euphemism for Iranian-trained groups of Shi'ite militiamen.)

We don't have a full accounting of the many carefully guided tours of Iraq given to inside-the-Beltway think-tank figures like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, former military figures, journalists, pundits and congressional representatives, all involving special meet-and-greet contacts with Petraeus and his top commanders, all leading to upbeat assessments of the "surge". We don't have the logs of our "surge" commander's visitors these past months, but we know, anecdotally at least, that, during this period, no reporter, no matter how minor, seemed incapable of securing a little get-together time to experience the general's special charm.

Put everything we do know, and enough that we suspect, together and you get our last "surge" year-plus in the US as a selling/propaganda campaign par excellence. The result has been a mix of media good news about "surge success", especially in "lowering violence," and no news at all as the Iraq story grew boringly humdrum and simply fell off the front pages of our papers and out of the TV news (as well as out of the Democratic Congress). This was, of course, a public relations bonanza for an administration that might otherwise have appeared fatally wounded. Think, in the president's terminology, of victory - not over Shi'ite or Sunni insurgents in Iraq, but, once again, over the media at home.

None of this should surprise anyone. The greatest skill of the Bush administration has always been its ability to market itself on "the home front". From September 14, 2001, on, through all those early "mission accomplished" years, it was on the home front, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, that administration officials worked hardest, pacifying the media, rolling out their own "products", and establishing the rep of their leader and "wartime" commander-in-chief. As White House chief of staff Andrew Card explained candidly enough to the New York Times, when it came to the launching, in September 2002, of a campaign to convince Congress and the public that an invasion of Iraq should be approved: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

Falling upwards
As a general and a personality, Petraeus fit the particular marketing mentality of this administration perfectly. Graduating from West Point too late for Vietnam - he wrote his doctoral

Continued 1 2 


Petraeus' rise lets Cheney loose on Iran (Apr 25, '08)


1. Taliban bitten by a snake in the grass

2. Hillary, the war chick

3. Western excess is the Earth killer

4. Petraeus' rise lets Cheney loose on Iran

5. Abdullah's second-chance reform drive

6. Rice, death and the dollar

7. Back to the hard line on N Korea

8. BOOK REVIEW: The Fed's king of bubbles

(Apr 25-27, 2008)

 
 



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