Just Above Sunset
December 11, 2005 - More Grist for the Mill

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Big news stories come in fits and starts. Important stories break in flurries of "We did what?" and "He (or she) claimed that?" Then there's a lull as the cable television "talking-heads" shows, and the print and web media, are filled with grave or sarcastic voices of reason, or emotion, explaining "what it all means." A day later the comics jump in, from the pedestrian Jay Leno to the sly and multi-leveled satire pieces from Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Then we begin again.

Some of the previous "big stories" do, of course, get a bit of filigree. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the middle of her diplomatic mission to Europe to lay down the law to them, and defend whatever the heck it is we're doing with "disappearing" people to secret prisons and practicing what some call torture, and we call "enhanced interrogation." Rice met with the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and they had a nice chat, then Merkel said Rice admitted we made a mistake in detaining and doing some very nasty things to a German citizen who turned out to be a nobody - and then our government said Angela had it all wrong and Rice said no such thing. Our official comment on Angela was - "We are not quite sure what was in her head."


We don't make mistakes, it seems.

Merkel was supposed to make nice with the Americans and fix everything in our mutual diplomatic relations, but she ran into the Bush team. Now she knows better. The basic story is here, just one of many accounts. Well, the fellow is suing us, so it will all be sorted out.

Then Howard Dean went and said this Iraq thing was a lot like Vietnam and we were NOT going to be "victorious" in any meaningful way - we should just do what we can by getting out and setting up strike teams to take care of acute situations there, not the chronic ones. The president quickly said we would be totally victorious, and we were staying, but he still doesn't have a good definition of exactly what total victory would look like. There are thousands of comments, and the basic story is here. One of Reagan's sons, Michael, the conservative one, said Dean should be hung for treason. Whatever.

Of course there's this new poll - forty percent of Americans want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, another four percent want us out in six months, and ten percent want out within a year. That adds up to fifty-four percent. Then there's five percent who want us out within two or three years. Thirty-four percent agree with the president.

Don't get all excited. We're arguing the best way to back out without the region exploding. The concept is a given, the details are not. Sooner or later someone will clue in the president.

The big mid-week event was, of course, the president's second of four speeches telling is we really do have a plan for total victory in Iraq - we have SVIC ("The Strategy for Victory in Iraq," in thirty-five nicely bound pages of bullet points).

As you recall, the first speech, the one in front of the midshipmen at Annapolis, was about nation building - when they stand up we stand down - and posited that victory was when everyone can see they don't need us any more, and all the mayhem stops.

There's a Boolean disconnect here. Which Boolean operator is he using? Is "total victory" when we get the first (self-sufficiency) AND the second (all the bad guys dead or turned nice), or is it the first OR the second? In either case it's our duty to get them "there." The "there" is a bit ambiguous. But we're staying - and we're training them - and that's going well, so the president said - and others said not so.

The venue for the Wednesday, December 7th speech, on the sixty-fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, was the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington (the dudes in pinstripes), and as mentioned, these folks broke their tradition and granted the White House's special request - no questions. The president speaks and the president leaves - a first for any speaker at the Council on Foreign Relations. Make of that what you will.

The second speech had a new theme, the economy and infrastructure in Iraq. All these folks say the place is a mess, but not so - it's getting better all the time, and we cannot pull now that we've "turned the corner." There's a light at the end of the tunnel? That was the idea. (Don't you wish the sixties wouldn't repeat on you like last night's pepperoni pizza on a bad morning?)

The text of the speech is here and you'll find an interesting analysis from Fred Kaplan here.

As Kaplan notes, and many can see, the administration is walking a fine line here. You have to establish that we're making real progress on getting Iraq up and running again, when the news is pretty dismal, while letting everyone know it's really not going that well. If it were, we could leave. So it's going well but we can't leave because it's not going that well. But is really is going well. No questions, please.

Yes, we got good statistics. There's that twenty-one billion in loans to thirty thousand new small businesses (way better than the Small Business Administration has done in New Orleans, by the way, but unsaid). There are those three thousand new schools (no mention of FEMA and the New Orleans schools). You have your new sewage lines and new electrical substations. Not bad.

But what about the big picture? Of course, critic Kaplan won't cut Bush any slack on this and turns to the State Department's November 30th "Iraq Weekly Status Report" (here).

What's there?


Try this –


Iraq's electrical power grid appears as dim as ever, or dimmer. Average daily supply - about 80,000 megawatts - falls 55,000 megawatts short of daily demand. It's 30,000 megawatts below the target that planners tried to hit last summer. And it's 15,000 megawatts below the average pre-war level. (A new power plant turbine in Kirkuk, which is about to fire up, will add just 260 megawatts to this total, according to the report. Two new substations, which Bush heralded in his speech, will service a mere 2,500 - out of roughly 1 million - homes in Baghdad.)

Baghdad, a capital city of roughly 6 million people, has only 6.1 hours of electrical power a day; nationwide, the average is 11.9 hours a day. The situation is, if anything, worsening; in the previous week's report, the respective figures were 8.7 and 12.6 hours.

Crude oil output - which Paul Wolfowitz once told us would pay for the war within months of Saddam's toppling - is stagnant, at 2 million barrels a day, well below the official goal of 2.5 million.


One more instance where the facts are biased?

Kaplan also points out that the president pointed to Najaf and Mosul as model cities - "sites of intense, chaotic violence not long ago, now bastions of relative calm with Iraqi security forces in charge." Yep, they are calm, "but many, if not most, security forces in Najaf are avowed members of Muqtada Sadr's militia." And that was where, a few days ago, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's campaign office was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, the province's ex-governor kidnapped, and the provincial council threaten to break ties with Americans after reports that one of our soldier stabbed a young fellow during a house raid. Kaplan links to the news wires on that, as he doesn't seem to want to be accused of making up things.

And there's the daily news of bombings and kidnappings.

Kaplan concludes –


Bush might argue, in the face of all this, that the strategy needs more time; improvements will build on improvements, successes will generate popular support, which will yield more successes. Missing from this assurance, though, is any recognition of the dynamics set in motion by America's occupation - that the large-scale presence of U.S. troops bolsters security and stability, but it also foments resentment and hatred and swells the ranks of the insurgency, which wreaks further fear and chaos. Simply keeping the troops there longer won't necessarily improve the situation.

The president still hasn't painted a complete picture; he still hasn't spelled out a strategy.


Well, it's a work in progress. Sometimes that's known as making it up as you go along.

That's getting harder to sell all the time, as you see in this exchange.

First up, Senator Joe Lieberman, just back from Iraq and having just written in the Wall Street Journal things are fine there and the news was all wrong and people had cell phones and were safe and happy and all the rest, now saying this: "It is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be commander in chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."

Next up, Jack Murtha, the congressman and ex-Marine who said it was time to wind this down and caused all that fuss a few Friday nights ago on the hill, with all that name-calling, saying this: "Undermining his credibility? What has he said that would give him credibility?"

No one is budging an inch here. Speeches aren't policy and they aren't action. They've just spin.

Well, two speeches down, and two to go for the president.

In any event, in other news, the cost of all this is going way up if this is so - 270 billion spent, a 50 billion supplemental pending, and a request coming next year for another 100 billion supplemental. These "supplementals" are not part of any part of the federal budget. They are funds we spend outside what we planned to spend. Where we get the money? We're talking more than a few bake sales and car washes here. More major debt. No one discusses this much.

Other news floating around midweek?

There's this


Israel told the United States it fears the outcome of regime change in Syria.

At a strategic-dialogue meeting this week among senior officials, Israel laid out for the United States three scenarios if Bashar Assad is toppled: chaos, an Islamist regime or another strongman from Assad's minority Alawite sect. Israel fears all those options, saying Assad provides a measure of stability.

U.S. officials told their Israeli counterparts that toppling Assad could be "transformative" and dismissed concerns about an Islamist regime taking his place.


Okay, our foreign policy is "transformation." Whack the hornet's nest and see what happens. Who knows, something good might happen. Hey, something good could come of the Iraq war. You never know. It might. Shake things up and see.

Even our good friends the Israelis think we're crazy.

Also recommended, and somewhat related, is Jacob Weisberg's Beyond Spin, a discussion of the "propaganda presidency of George W. Bush."

The difference?


This –


Though propaganda and spin exist on a continuum, they are different in essence. To spin is to offer a contention, usually specious, in response to a critical argument or a negative news story. It does not necessarily involve lying or misleading anyone about factual matters. Habitual spin is irksome, especially to the journalists upon whom it is practiced, but it does not threaten democracy. Propaganda is far more malignant. A calculated and systematic effort to manage public opinion, it transcends mere lying and routine political dishonesty. When the Bush administration manufactures fake "news," suppresses real news, disguises the former as the latter, and challenges the legitimacy of the independent press, it corrodes trust in leaders, institutions, and, to the rest of the world, the United States as a whole.


And Christopher Hitchens – who thinks this war is fine and has publicly said we should never leave (establish bases and make Iraq ours) - who often argues George Bush is a wonderful man who is subtle, insightful and even visionary - is on fire about that here.

Weisberg is saying this –


Propaganda is the only word for the Pentagon's recently exposed secret efforts to plant positive stories in the Iraqi press. There is, to be sure, precedent for the U.S. funding democratically-minded foreign journalists, both clandestinely through the CIA and openly through agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Covert funding is both ethically indefensible and, in most cases, practically counterproductive. In the Cold War context, however, such efforts were often aboveboard and directed toward supporting courageous independent media and opposition voices in repressive countries.

In the Iraq cash-for-flacks scheme, on the other hand, the Pentagon did something simply stupid and wrong by hiring a propaganda-making firm called the Lincoln Group to cultivate an impression of grass-roots support for the American occupation. In this greenhouse, the gardeners did not just water and fertilize the seedlings; they handed out plastic flowers and hoped no one would notice they weren't real. American operatives paid Iraqi journalistic mercenaries to publish a farrago of puffery and outright misrepresentation. Here's my favorite quote from the Nov. 30 Los Angeles Times piece that exposed this operation: "Zaki [an Iraqi newspaper editor] said that if his cash-strapped paper had known that these stories were from the U.S. government, he would have 'charged much, much more' to publish them."


Well, that story has legs.

And there's this –


The administration's need to outsource its propaganda work - for reasons of deniability, not efficiency - has promoted the emergence of a new kind of PR-industrial complex in the nation's capital. Outfits like the Ketchum's Washington Group, the shadowy Lincoln Group, and the even more flourishing, even more shadowy Rendon Group are the parasitic fruit not just of unchecked self-puffery but of a lucrative new patronage network.

In a way, what's most troubling about the Bush's administration's information war is not its cynicism but its naiveté. At phony town hall meetings, Bush's audiences are hand-picked to prevent any possibility of spontaneous challenge. At fake forums, invited guests ask the president to pursue his previously announced policies. New initiatives are unveiled on platforms festooned with meaningless slogans, mindlessly repeated ("Plan for Victory"). Anyone on the inside who doubts the party line is shown the door. In this environment, where the truth is not spoken privately or publicly, the suspicion grows that Bush, in his righteous cocoon, has committed the final, fatal sin of the propagandist. He is not just spreading BS but has come to believe it himself.


Ah, that explains the Wednesday speech.

This shadowy Rendon Group, as explained in the Rolling Stone article, has been mentioned before in these pages - Bob Patterson last weekend here and in the editor's The Sunday Funnies Featuring Curveball on November 27th - but the best explanation of such outfits is in Newsweek from Jonathan Alter here


We got into the war with the help of something called the Rendon Group, a secretive firm that won a huge government contract to "create the conditions for the removal of [Saddam] Hussein from power." (According to an article by James Bamford in last week's Rolling Stone, Rendon invented the "Iraqi National Congress" and put Judith Miller and other reporters in touch with their bum sources on WMD.) Now the PR pork scandal is moving to a different level. This year, the Pentagon granted three contractors $300 million over five years to offer "creative ideas" for psychological operations aimed at what the PR experts call "international perception management." That $300 million will buy a lot of Arabic press releases, but it's unavailable for, say, body armor.

The contractor implicated in the planted Iraqi press story is the Lincoln Group, formerly Iraqex, which boasts to prospective clients that it provides services ranging from "political campaign intelligence" (dirt on your opponents in American elections) to "commercial real estate in Iraq" (so you can buy the choicest properties and tick off the Iraqis even more). It's run by one Christian Bailey, a 30-year-old Oxford-educated fop who helped run the 2004 Republican National Convention, and once cohosted parties in New York limited to those who had graduated from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale (Princeton was apparently beneath them). I tried to learn whether Bailey's British accent reflected British citizenship or more "perception management," but no one from the Lincoln Group would call me back. Other reporters were told that everything about the firm's operations was "classified." Bailey has put a bunch of Bush campaign hacks on the gravy train, finagled security clearances, then assigned them to corrupt the Iraqi media. Democracy in action!


So now you know.

The president has famously said he doesn't read newspapers, or watch the news. And he explained why - those around him, who are the players in the big game, tell him what's really going on, not those who kibbutz from the bleachers. Well, not his exact words, but that was the substance of what he said.

Could it be the PR firm that "invented" the Iraqi National Congress - Chalabi and his noble compatriots in exile who wanted "their Iraq" back – and these other firms creating "good news," are the players in the big game who inform the president? That'd be a hoot, except for all the dead American soldiers. But that would explain the mid-week speech.


Local Note:

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the very odd governor of this state, has ticked off everyone. There was that special election last month with all its referendums. After months of telling us the police, nurses and firefighters were greedy bastards and he needed this new power or that to override the legislature (he called them girly-men) and the courts to get things done, every item he proposed was defeated. Now he's named a left-wing Democrat and a woman as his Chief of Staff. He's a strange man.

Mid-week the dam burst


With segments of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political base rising in revolt, directors of the California Republican Party have demanded a private meeting with the governor to complain about the hiring of a Democratic operative as his chief of staff.

The request comes as Schwarzenegger faces a sustained wave of opposition from both moderate and conservative Republicans over the choice of Susan P. Kennedy. Before serving as a state public utility commissioner, Kennedy was Cabinet secretary to former Gov. Gray Davis. She also was an abortion-rights activist and former Democratic Party executive.

In appointing Kennedy last week, the governor praised her as an effective administrator who could "implement my vision" and work cooperatively with Democrats who control the Legislature.

But Republican operatives said grass-roots volunteers are so disturbed by the appointment that they are threatening to abandon Schwarzenegger during his re-election bid next year. Others said Schwarzenegger is risking a nasty fight that could cause the party to rescind its endorsement during February's convention in San Jose.


The man is mad.

And of course this has led to a campaign to draft Mel Gibson to run against Schwarzenegger in the Republican primary next year. The idea is the success of Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," could help his chances among religious conservatives. And sadists? And anti-Semites?

California is a crazy place. Some Democrats wanted Rob Reiner - "When Harry Met Sally" and such films - to run against Arnold. But Meathead from "All in the Family" said no. They're still working on talking Warren Beatty - "Shampoo" and "Reds" and "Dick Tracey" - into running.


Of course Gibson has a new ABC miniseries in the works, about the holocaust. He and his father belong to a splinter Catholic sect that claims the holocaust was no big deal - not that it didn't happen, just that it wasn't so bad and not that many people died.


Should be an interesting but of mainstream television. It's somewhere between concept and pre-production at the moment.

Of course readers outside California will think all this is something invented for these pages. This site comes to you from the center of Hollywood, where the "dream factories" are, where nothing is what it seems. It couldn't be so.

But you can use Google or Yahoo or whatever and see that it's all true - it's really, really true.

There are dream factories on each coast, DC and Hollywood, where what is real and what isn't gets all mixed up.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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