Propaganda: It’s a Good Thing

Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that the recent flap over “propaganda” in Iraq is rather silly in light of history:

Once again we are confronted with stories about how the Pentagon and its ubiquitous private contractors are undermining free inquiry in Iraq. “Muslim Scholars Were Paid to Aid U.S. Propaganda,” reports the New York Times. Journalists, intellectuals or clerics taking money from Uncle Sam or, in this case, a Washington-based public relations company, is seen as morally troubling and counterproductive. Sensible Muslims obviously would not want to listen to the advice of an American-paid consultant; anti-insurgent Sunni clerics can now all be slurred as corrupt stooges.

There is one big problem with this baleful version of events. Historically, it doesn’t make much sense. The United States ran enormous covert and not-so-covert operations known as “CA” activities throughout the Cold War. With the CIA usually in the lead, Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars on book publishing, magazines, newspapers, radios, union organizing, women’s and youth groups, scholarships, academic foundations, intellectual salons and societies, and direct cash payments to individuals (usually scholars, public intellectuals and journalists) who believed in ideas that America thought worthy of support.

It’s difficult to assess the influence of these covert-action programs. But when an important Third World political leader writes that a well-known liberal Western book had an enormous impact on his intellectual evolution — a book that, unbeknownst to him was translated and distributed in his country at CIA expense — then it’s clear that the program had value. It shouldn’t be that hard for educated Americans to support such activity, even though one often can’t gauge its effectiveness.

Nor should it be so hard to support even more aggressive clandestine action in developing democracies such as Iraq. Let us make a Cold War parallel. As is well known, the CIA for years financially maintained the British journal Encounter. This magazine, which was perhaps the most important English-language outlet for anti-communist U.S. and European writers, influenced debates among the Western intelligentsia from the 1950s through the ’70s. By bang-for-the-buck calculation, it may be the most effective nonmilitary highbrow covert action the United States has funded. Does anyone seriously believe that the French intellectual giant Raymond Aron was compromised by regularly writing for this publication or for French magazines also funded by the CIA? Regardless of whether Aron or others at Encounter might have suspected that their checks were cut by the U.S. taxpayer, are their insights and reporting any less relevant and true?

A historian looking at Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty when it was subsumed within the CIA would probably find it hard to suggest that it was less truthful or more subject to political manipulation than today’s Radio Liberty, which operates under the oversight of the politicized and idiosyncratic Board of Broadcasting Governors. RFE-RL was probably the most successful “soft power” expenditure that Washington ever made. East European and Soviet dissidents didn’t have a problem with the CIA backing. The issue with them, as it is today with Uzbeks listening to Radio Liberty or Muslims elsewhere reading or listening to U.S.-supported material, is whether the content echoes the reality that they know.

“Propaganda” has come to carry a pejorative connotation but it does not have to be a bad thing. Delivering information to persuade a target audience of your viewpoint is value neutral.

Coercing legitimate journalists to write things that are untrue would be ethically wrong and likely counterproductive to our mission in Iraq. But countering negative press with honest reporting that conveys information helpful to our cause is not only within the bounds of decency it is essential to mission success.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Sigh. Propaganda is about perception.

    If paying journalists creates the perception that they’re unbelievable American tools, that is not a good perception.

    Why do people who are trying to “get the message out” want to do it in a covert manner? Oil & water, my friends.

  2. legion says:

    Regardless of whether Aron or others at Encounter might have suspected that their checks were cut by the U.S. taxpayer, are their insights and reporting any less relevant and true?

    Gerecht dodges it, but you edge closer to the problem… “countering negative press”, as you say, is a legitimate purpose for a gov’t-run CA or PR function. The problem is the implicit assumption that ‘negative press’ is solely a function of spin. Sometimes, things really are ‘that bad’ – if commentators (I refuse to call such people ‘journalists’) are paid to simply make things up or unquestioningly relay talking points, we lose all credibility in the eyes of the audience we’re trying to influence. And even in the arenas where there are regular bits of ‘good news’, like Iraq, ham-handed and unprofessional efforts can still leave us looking like (at best) Pollyanna stumbling through a minefield.

    People the world over respect organizations that investigate & report the truth, as best they can – even if it’s not all complimentary. Organizations that only tell one side what they want to hear may have a built-in audience, but they have no right to gripe when people outside their target demo don’t respect them (and yes, that goes for left-wing news as well as right-wing).

  3. Gibnso says:

    But countering negative press with honest reporting that conveys information helpful to our cause is not only within the bounds of decency it is essential to mission success.

    How about bursting into an Iraqi journalist’s home in the middle of the night, firing bullets at him and his wife while they were sleeping, arresting him without charge, stealing his interview notes and tapes, interrogating him for several hours, then dumping him off in an unsafe Baghdad neighborhood?

    That seems to be the tactic the US is taking more recently.

  4. Herb says:

    It seem to me, from reading comments, that it is Ok for Al Jezera to spread any hate, untruths and anti US propaganda they want to put out, but a department of the US Government is wrong for countering such trash with spoken or printed matter that upholds the ideals of the US.

    Oh, well, just one more ploy designed to “Make Bush look bad”.

    To bad the democrats can’t do anything honestly and truthfully.

  5. Randall B says:

    it is Al Jezera to spread any hate

    Please give an example of Al-Jazeera “spreading hate.” Which show on the channel are you talking about? Most of the time the stories are indistinguishable from the BBC.

  6. Herb says:

    Randall B:

    The apparant fact that you admit you watch Al Jezera tell me a lot about you.

    And you watch BBC, Europes super lefty liberal madia that loves to bash America along with Al Jezera. I suggest you start watching Fox News.

    Are you muslim?

  7. John Burgess says:

    I call your attention to The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World

    This is the second book based on the archives Vasili Mitrokhin smuggled out of the Soviet Union during its last days. It focuses on what the KGB was doing around the world, excluding Europe and the US, the subjct of the first book.

    What stands out is how successful KGB “Active Measures,” that is, the placement of disinformation pieces in the local media, were throughout the 50s-80s.

    The US gov’t ran overt information programs (through USIA) and covert information programs (through the CIA). Both, to distinguish them from KGB programs, could rely on factual reporting, not inventing stories to make the other guy look bad, or to screw around with how one country viewed another.

    Among the highpoints of KGB efforts were stories about how the CIA or Pentagon invented AIDS, and the now-legend baby-parts stories. How the US was supporting one faction in government over another was an frequent tack, very believable by foreign governments with questionable legitimacy to begin with.

    Definitely worth reading to see how pervasive disinformation (and other programs) were, but also how unsuccessful most of them were.

  8. DL says:

    Propaganda is neither bad nor good,it’s in fact like a gun. If used in an appropriate manner for good ends it’s fine -if full of lies for ill ends it becomes an evil tool.
    One interesting read is the Vatican II Documents on propaganda and the encouragement to properly use it for spreading the faith -always with truth and dignity.

  9. Tina says:

    (Reason’s link takes you to a registration-required site)

    Appearances are still important. Our rep is bad in much of the Arab world (and this is not the place to discuss why, so please don’t). It just is.

    This administration seems to truly believe that its intentions are so pure they can do anything to accomplish them. Don’t they even wonder for a second that maybe our good intentions are not apparent to everyone? Anything we do will be interpreted as EvilYankeeImperialistHereticEtc trickery, so doesn’t anyone ever think that there are certain actions that lend themselves more easily to this interpretation? And that maybe we should – gasp – have a backup plan? Oh wait, I forgot – a backup plan is an exit strategy is the Powell Doctrine is defeatist pantywaist trash.

  10. LJD says:

    No matter how much money/food/medicine we give, no matter how many roads/schools/hospitals we build, no matter how many lives we sacrifice to save (yes, SAVE)theirs, we will always be the EVIL American Empire in the eyes of much of the Arab world. So, lets get over the fantasy that if we changed our policy, somehow things would be different.

    We are at war. Propaganda is a part of winning it, or at least preserving life in the process. Why is it such a violation for it to be produced on BEHALF of the Armed Forces, when it is repeatedly generated AGAINST them?

  11. legion says:

    If you assume that our rep in Arab eyes is already pretty much irredeemable, then why waste time & money on propaganda at all?

  12. LJD says:

    Just adressing Tina’s point that somehow a policy change or administration change would do anything for us. Note that I said “much of the arab world”. There is a growing population that sees all the good we do, and the benefits of living in a free society. Of course, they’re not getting any help from the press. I guess explosions and beheadings make for better news… No, they need to see our sacrifice on their behalf. Call it propaganda if you wish.