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.