Consider Yourself Influenced

It was tempting, while Donald Rumsfeld burst a few blood vessels last week railing against those who questioned the Pentagon’s “Office of Strategic Influence,” to agree with Rumsfeld that such criticism was indeed unfair — the Pentagon has been engaged in misleading the American public for years, and the country’s major media usually plays right along.

As if to confirm such cynicism — or, at the least, that Rumsfeld’s rebuke was respectfully received — proof of the syndrome showed up yesterday, in a remarkable article seeking to convince Americans that our pending war against Colombian rebels is not only necessary, but inevitable.

Unfortunately, “Colombian Rebels Step Up Attacks,” written — or at least given a byline — by Juan Forero, isn’t labeled an op-ed; it’s in the international news section, and its unsubtle pretext is exactly what the headline suggests. Here’s the lead paragraph:

“Peace talks between the government and Marxist rebels collapsed just 11 days ago, and it took no time at all for Colombia to plunge into a new, ominous phase of the long-running conflict. Almost immediately after the talks ended, the rebels launched a coordinated series of attacks aimed at spreading misery across this vast country while demonstrating the government’s inability to stop them.”

As with any well-spun Pentagon story, there is nothing factually inaccurate here, just — as Rumsfeld tried to explain to us last week — misleading. (The gratuitous characterization of FARC as “Marxist” comes dangerously close, both in terms of being a fair description and in terms of revealing the article’s intent.)

It is true enough that only 11 days had passed between the end of the “peace process,” and that lots has happened since — but it was enough time for a key element not mentioned by Forero. Or rather, it’s mentioned, but buried, after several paragraphs describing rebel attacks. Ferero mentions how the talks ended only in the sixth paragraph, at which point we learn that:

“The rebel aggression began hours after [Colombian President Andres] Pastrana broke off negotiations with the rebels on Feb. 20, ending a three-year peace effort. It has prompted the government to declare a large region of south and central Colombia a war zone in which the army has new authority to bring order.”

And even this isn’t quite accurate, as Forero further clarifies in paragraphs 13 and 14:

“The new wave of violence began after Mr. Pastrana, in a nationally televised address, angrily broke off talks with [FARC]….The Colombian Air Force then began bombing a large region in southern Colombia that Mr. Pastrana had ceded to the rebels in 1998 as a venue for peace talks. Elite army forces soon entered…”

And all hell has consequently busted loose. The remainder of the article’s 34 paragraphs are devoted to descriptions of FARC’s effectiveness in the past week in attacking the country’s infrastructure — a development so predictable that even I saw it coming, in this space a month ago, on February 8. Here’s what I wrote:

“Any [crackdown on FARC]…will for the first time bring Colombia’s war to its big urban centers. There, a terror campaign by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar brought the country to its knees in the ’80s; FARC…can and probably would inflict much, much more damage.”

There is another subtext, however, to the Times article: America’s urgent need to intervene, emphasized by several Pentagon and Capitol Hill quotes. (No opponents to U.S. intervention are quoted.) Here, Forero’s omissions come closest to outright falsehood, by linking FARC with the drug trade.

“The Bush administration has decided, for now, to limit American involvement mostly to the war on drugs, which undercuts the rebel’s main source of financing.”

The problem here — aside from plenty of “unofficial” U.S. involvement in the war itself — is that as drug trade connections go, FARC is relatively clean; far more drug money goes to and through the Colombian military and various paramilitary groups that have close links to the Colombian military and have committed a majority of that country’s human rights atrocities.

This is not to hold FARC blameless; it has, in fact, unleashed a series of high- profile bombings, kidnappings, and acts of sabotage. And it’s rarely productive, in the midst of war, to try to keep score of who really started it; lives lost on all sides are a tragedy and an outrage. But here we have, on one hand, reality: that Pastrana responded to a guerrilla hijacking with an angry public denunciation and massive retaliation (amidst a presidential election — another factor Forero ignores); and that, in turn, has led to the current guerrilla offensive. And then, we have the New York Times’ version: talks somehow “ended,” the (Marxist, drug-loving) guerrillas attacked seemingly without reason, and the government has (large scale bombing notwithstanding) been helpless to resist FARC’s “terrorism.” Only America can help.

Either Rumsfeld was lying about having ended the Office of Strategic Influence, or he never needed it in the first place. Consider yourself influenced.

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