Deep Propaganda on Afghanistan: A Case Study


In the world of Nygaard Notes, the word Propaganda has a special meaning.  As I see it, Propaganda operates on two levels, which I call Overt Propaganda and Deep Propaganda.  What I call Overt Propaganda tends to be specific and conscious.   Propaganda that, on the other hand, is general and unconscious I call Deep Propaganda.  In other words, Overt Propaganda is the thing we are supposed to believe.  Deep Propaganda is what makes it believable.

On August 28th the New York Times offered up a nearly textbook-perfect example of the two levels of propaganda and how they work together.  I want to share it with you now.

Not only the New York Times, but many media outlets on that day in August ran stories on the thinking of the nation’s top-ranking military officer in relation to the way we’re doing our propaganda in the so-called Global War on Terror.  He thinks we’re doing it all wrong.  He didn’t use the word “propaganda,” of course, and the media also declined to use such language, preferring to refer to his comments as a “critique” of our “strategic communications.”  And a “searing” critique, at that!

For those of you who don’t have your decoder rings handy, “strategic communications” is the approved jargon used in reference to public relations operations when they are conducted by the U.S. government.  I prefer the term Propaganda, and we’ll see why in a moment.

The comments that drew the media’s attention in August were made by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top-ranking officer of the most powerful military on earth.  He was writing in the latest issue of Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal.  His basic point was summed up by the New York Times as follows:

“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has written a searing critique of government efforts at ‘strategic communication’ with the Muslim world, saying that no amount of public relations will establish credibility if American behavior overseas is perceived as arrogant, uncaring or insulting.”

While his article may be fairly termed a “searing critique,” what the media failed to report—and most likely failed to notice—is that the Admiral’s article was itself a piece of public relations.  A classic one, at that!  And, judging by the way it was reported, I suspect that the purveyor would conclude that this bit of PR work was quite successful.

Here are a few samples of what the Admiral wrote in his critique:

1.  “[O]our biggest problem… is credibility.  Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.”

2.  “[The United States] could learn a lot by looking to our own past.  No other people on Earth have proven more capable at establishing trust and credibility in more places than we have. And we’ve done it primarily through the power of our example.”

3.  “Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.”

4. “[T]he essence of good communication [is] having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves.”

5.  “We hurt ourselves and the message we try to send when it appears we are doing something merely for the credit.”

Decoding The Five Points

1.  Let’s begin by looking at that bit about “building trust and relationships.”  The fact is, the United States HAS a relationship with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.  And that relationship is one of military occupier and occupied people.

How about the part about “delivering on promises”?   Of what “promises” does the Admiral speak?  Did we not go into both Iraq and Afghanistan to further the goals of U.S. policy, specifically to “protect” the United States?  It seems to me that the only “promise” made to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. is the promise to use their countries as staging areas for the projection of U.S. (and NATO) power.  And “our messages lack credibility” to the extent that they attempt to paint the U.S. effort as being concerned with the welfare of the Iraqi and Afghan people.  There is no such concern, the world knows it, and the attempt to put a happy face on a brutal military occupation is the source of the “credibility problem.”  Mullen’s statement that “our biggest problem” is “credibility” only makes sense from an imperial point of view.  From a moral perspective, the biggest problem is the fact of the occupation itself.

2.  The Admiral states that the “trust and credibility” of the United States has been established by “the power of our example.”  There are dozens of “examples” of U.S. anti-democratic intervention around the world since World War II, with Iraq and Afghanistan being only the most recent and well-known.  People educated outside of the United States tend to be far more aware of this history than those of us who were raised in the imperial center.  For those of us in the heart of the beast, I recommend the work of William Blum, specifically “Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II.”  All of Blum’s work is great, but Killing Hope is a good, and unique, overview of U.S. actions over the decades.  It’s filled with “examples” that have a power not mentioned by the Admiral.

3. “Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.”  It’s not a matter of arrogance, really.  It’s a matter of making no promise other than the promise to ignore the needs of the Afghan people and attend to the needs of the U.S. leadership.  Here’s President Obama this past Friday, September 25th: “[M]y overriding goal [in Afghanistan] is to dismantle the al Qaeda network.”  A recent poll of the Afghan people, in contrast, asked “Which do you think poses the biggest danger in our country: drug traffickers, local commanders, the United States, the Taliban, the current Afghan Government or something else?”  Exactly zero percent said al Qaeda.  I’ve looked at a number of other surveys of people in Afghanistan, and more often than not al Qaeda is not even mentioned.

4.  “[T]he essence of good communication [is] having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves.”  One of the examples of “having the right intent” offered by the Admiral is the sailing of the “Great White Fleet,” as it was called.  This was a 1907 project of President Theodore Roosevelt to send “state-of-the art, highly-armored, white-painted American naval vessels” on a round-the-world voyage intended, according to Life magazine, “to impress the world with U.S. naval power.”  In other words, the Great White Fleet was a projection of U.S. imperial power in the period now known as the Age of Imperialism, during which the U.S. was going about such business as “acquiring as possessions the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, then Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.”  In the Admiral’s world, such actions “speak for themselves” as evidence of  “the right intent.”

5.  “We hurt ourselves and the message we try to send when it appears we are doing something merely for the credit.”  This is the most revealing statement of all.  There are two main implications here.  It is clear, if you read the article in Joint Force Quarterly, that Mr. Mullen is speaking largely about Afghanistan.  The Admiral implies that those doing the occupying consider it credit-worthy.  That’s no surprise.  But he implies that it is his belief that there are some intended recipients of “the message we try to send” who also consider this occupation worthy of praise.  It appears, from the international polls and news reports that I have seen, that most of the world does not agree with the occupation.

Here’s the Main Point

This is where we see how Propaganda works simultaneously on two levels, and how the media consciously or unconsciously feeds the process:

In order to believe that the U.S. is not occupying Afghanistan “merely” for the credit, one would have to believe that a military occupation of a small, weak country by a military superpower is worthy of credit in the first place.  If it is not, then the idea of doing it “merely for the credit” becomes nonsensical.  And this is exactly how Deep Propaganda is reinforced: The propagandist makes a statement that is nonsensical UNLESS his premise is accepted.  In order for the recipient of such a statement to resolve the dissonance that comes with receiving such a crazy idea, one must do one of two things: Either reject the idea, or accept the premise.

When the statement is made by an authoritative figure and  reported in a respectable newspaper with no indication of any dissonance in the reporter’s mind, the average reader becomes far more likely to accept the premise.  And this, in turn, makes the next bit of propaganda more easy to accept.  So the Overt Propaganda in this case is duly reported by the media (We’re not communicating our Goodness as best we can.) and such reporting serves to reinforces the Deep Propaganda (The U.S. is always and everywhere a force for good in the world.) upon which the propagandist relies.

By reporting the comments of the nation’s highest-ranking military officer uncritically, the media makes it infinitely more difficult for readers to imagine an alternative picture of reality.

What if the problem with “American behavior overseas” is not that it is “arrogant, uncaring or insulting,” but rather that it is simply immoral and wrong?  What if the real attempt at establishing “credibility” is pure propaganda?  What if the “strategic communications” that are so problematic in the Admiral’s eyes are actually aimed at the U.S. voting public, specifically for the purpose of getting us to believe that the violence needed to maintain an Empire is necessary and right, and that we need to keep electing people who will maintain that Empire, no matter the cost in wealth and human life?  That’s a picture of reality that the Empire’s “strategic communications” are designed to obscure.  It’s our job to spot it, expose it, and work to change it.

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