Manufacturing consent

A new book charts the ins and outs of selling a war to America and the world.

Governments don’t make war by themselves. They need at least the tacit support of their citizens, and to get that support, they need propaganda.

The Bush administration, public relation experts and advertising executives needed such propaganda to win support for a war with Iraq. The new book “Weapons of Mass Deception” profiles the psychologically savvy techniques they used in their marketing campaign to “blitz American and foreign audiences.”

Authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are known for their similarly themed book, “Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future,” and “Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry.”

Rampton and Stauber write and edit the quarterly “PR Watch: Public Interest Reporting on the PR/Public Affairs Industry.”

After Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration initiated a two-pronged propaganda offensive. The first required persuading the American public, Congress and its foreign allies that Saddam Hussein was not only evil, but also an “immanent threat to our nation’s security.” The second operation was a long needed polishing of the United States’ image. Both courses adopted procedures used in private sector commercial advertising. The administration even hired a former advertising executive to help run its public diplomacy.

Rampton and Stauber point out how humanitarian language strove to create a bipartisan appearance. The week of Sept. 11, 2001’s one-year anniversary, President George W. Bush first addressed the United Nations requesting a mandate for war against Iraq. Anti-terrorism causes became linked with the effort to engage “rogue states” that harbor terrorists. Influential position holders from both Bush administrations formed a new Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Its mission statement outlined a strategy for “promot(ing) regional peace, political freedom and international security by replacing the Saddam Hussein regime.” Such entities as the “axis of evil” helped cloak the U.S. war initiative. Strong arguments for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and U.S. security interests bred support for self-defense in times of “immanent danger” that backed military action.

The propaganda unleashed by the United States was sometimes subtle, but nearly inescapable. Efforts put forth in other countries received less attention here. In 2001, around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. officials distributed “Mosques of America” posters across the Arab world. A Web site and brochures in multiple languages entitled “Muslim Life in America” touted religious tolerance in the United States and Muslims’ positive experiences here. Radio Sawa was launched to “broadcast pop music in the Arab world, accompanied by top-of-the-hour news from an American point of view.” A traveling exhibit of disaster photographs from the Twin Towers site made its way around the Middle East. These examples were only the most conspicuous.

Rampton and Stauber consider this heavy-handed international campaign a disaster. A bludgeoned war of rhetoric we lost and continue to lose.

The authors provide a brief historical overview of U.S. involvement in the Middle East from a public relations perspective, reminding us how we first got our hands dirty.

The greatest quality of this new book, as their previous three, is exposing the symbiotic relationship between the government, big industry and the mass media who together use propaganda as a means to achieve their goals. Written in level-headed prose and just over two hundred pages, “Weapons of Mass Deception” is a swift, crisp and insightful read exposing the thrashings of government propaganda.

Rampton and Stauber show us that some in the government think that indoctrinating, influencing and targeting audiences is a “branding issue, plain and simple Ö Countries are no different than soap flakes or automobiles.” Americans have their work cut out for them as diplomats. In any war where bombs are falling, “bombardments of rhetoric” if not persuasive enough to change the rival’s opinions, only anger them more, thus sewing new, more deeply rooted seeds of hatred.