Coming Soon to Iraq: The Passion of the Handover
Occupation's bad news beat goes on as the Coalition Provisional
Authority hires top British PR firm to spin Year Two

by Bill Berkowitz
March 27, 2004

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If year one of Operation Iraqi Freedom proved anything, it was that public relations firms could have you believe that smoking a roasted banana peel could give you a little buzz. During the run-up to war with Iraq, the administration relied heavily on "perception management," Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber wrote in their book Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (Tarcher/Putnam, 2003).

To that end, Team Bush rolled out a steady dose of misinformation, disinformation, and highly dubious intelligence to sell the war to the public.

The selling of the war, however, was a breeze compared to the selling of the occupation. Administration-sponsored propaganda efforts, including the use of in-house hotshots and the hiring of topnotch public relations firms and marketing gurus haven't yet been able to stitch together a coherent or believable message. As the occupation continues to unravel, so does the tapestry of the administration's tall tales.

With the so-called handover of power to Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority only a few months away, the CPA is going back to the PR well, awarding a $5.8 million contract to the British public relations firm Bell Pottinger Public Affairs "to promote the establishment of democracy as the country recovers from war," the Holmes Report recently announced.

Led by company founder Lord Tim Bell, who according to The Independent, "masterminded Margaret Thatcher's rise to power in 1979," Bell Pottinger -- one of the largest public relations companies in the United Kingdom, and one of 14 companies operating within the public relations division of Chime Communications PLC -- will lead a consortium that includes the Dubai-based advertising agency Bates PanGulf and the media services company Balloch & Roe, which already has offices in Baghdad. Corporate Watch reported in 1999 that Lord Bell "can also boast on his CV the following illustrious clients: South Africa's National Party; the Coal Board during the 1984 miners' strike; post-Dayton, Milosevic-led Yugoslavia."

A company spokesperson said that it would inform "the Iraqi people about the democratic process that will see sovereignty returned to an interim Iraqi administration, the conduct of democratic elections, and the establishment of a new constitution for Iraq" by employing a multi-media strategy, including television, print, outdoor posters, and leaflets. If necessary, it would convene town hall meetings as well.

Iraq: Year One

While the cable news networks were trucking out their moth-balled military "experts" for another tour of duty -- a week-long look at a year in the life of Iraq -- the Bush Administration also had great plans for marking the occasion. Once again however, the spirit of poet Robert Burns' line, "the best laid plans of mice and men most often go astray," hovered about the president.

A year that opened last March 19 with "shock and awe" and embedded reporters covering the invasion of Iraq and the rapid-fire seizure of Baghdad also saw the toppling and eventual capture of Saddam Hussein, the death of more than 560 American soldiers, the maiming of thousands of U.S. troops, and thousands more dead Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

On May Day, the ever-flighty flight-suited president landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared major combat operations over. Of course they weren't, as the families of the hundreds of dead since May 1st can attest to.

Bush later issued his infamous "Bring them on" challenge and the resisters brought it on, albeit in their own resistance-defined ways, and they're still bringing it on -- as evidenced by the deadly bombing of the Mount Lebanon Hotel two days before the end of Year One.

Bush delivered a phony turkey to the troops at the Baghdad Airport on Thanksgiving Day just as he had delivered phony reasons for going to war in the first place. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, and David Kay, the former head of the U.S. weapons search team, the Iraq Survey Group, now all agree that Iraq had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The idea that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were symbiotically-linked Siamese terror warriors proved to be another outrageous Bush Administration fabrication.

As an anniversary gift, Congressman Henry Waxman issued a report called Iraq on the Record: The Bush Administration's Public Statements on Iraq, identifying 237 "specific misleading statements about the threat posed by Iraq" made by President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice "in 125 public appearances in the time leading up to and after the commencement of hostilities in Iraq."

Just as the president was preparing to party like it was 1972, Team Bush ran into a series of March setbacks forcing it back into Operation Scramble, dispatching top officials hither and yon for television sit-downs and pep talks. The hope was to take the spotlight away from the up-tick in deaths of U.S. soldiers, the deadly bombing of the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad, and the recent election in Spain, coming in the aftermath of the Madrid bombing that resulted in 200 killed and hundreds maimed, that saw the Bush-friendly Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party ousted by an anti-Iraq war Socialist government headed by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Year One ended with the Bush Administration trying to avoid cracks in the "Coalition of the Willing," as typified by Prime Minister Zapatero's assessment that the occupation of Iraq has been a "disaster."

Thanks for the memories

Before the year slips down the memory hole:

Baghdad Bob's dead-on certainty;

Bush's neoconservative gang that couldn't shoot straight with the facts;

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's revelations that Team Bush was ready to head for Iraq as soon as it took office;

The rise and fall of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's matinee idol status; the fall was exemplified by his mid-March performance on CBS' Face the Nation where, when confronted by a series of his inconsistent statements regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, he could only stammer incoherently;

The dissembling of CIA Director George Tenet, who might actually fall on his sword if he could find it;

The "heroic" rescue of Jessica Lynch;

Right wing attacks on anti-war protesters, and the cranking up of the Patriot Act;

Pro-war rallies organized by Clear Channel Communications;

The reconstruction oil-rush and evidence of corporate profiteering and Halliburton rip offs;

The pre-emptive crowning of Ahmad Chalabi, and his entire well-placed family, as co-owners of Iraq;

Bush's "things are getting better in Iraq" mantra repeated over and over and over again;

Silence from Tom Ridge's Department of Homeland Security -- except during the holiday season;

The persecution of Al-Jazeera;

The removal of the bumbling Lt. Gen. Jay Garner and the installation of Wall Street's Paul Bremer as the U.S.'s head man in Iraq;

The re-surfacing of stories about Bush's spotty record in the Texas Air National Guard;

The U.S. wounded arriving at Andrews Air Force Base to no media coverage;

The dead arriving at Dover Air Force Base to little or no media coverage;

Walter Reed Army Medical Center's packed physical rehab facilities;

David Kay returning home empty-handed from Iraq, having failed to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction;

Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin's dead-on certainty that Bush was God's candidate, and that his God is bigger than any Muslim's; and

Janet Jackson's right breast -- this of course has nothing to do with Iraq but I thought I'd throw it in there as one of the year's cherished memories.

According to Principles of Salesmanship 101, every deal needs a dependable closer. Is Bell Pottinger's Lord Bell up to the task? Will he bring back Maggie Thatcher? Will he persuade Mel Gibson to pull together a director's cut of "The Passion of The Handover" in time for an Easter Sunday premiere?

If he doesn't do the former and can't do the latter, Baghdad Bob and Lt. General Boykin might be available.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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