To understand how the American people find themselves trapped in today’s Orwellian dystopia of endless warfare against an ever-shifting collection of “evil” enemies, you have to think back to the Vietnam War and the shock to the ruling elite caused by an unprecedented popular uprising against that war.
While on the surface Official Washington pretended that the mass protests didn’t change policy, a panicky reality existed behind the scenes, a recognition that a major investment in domestic propaganda would be needed to ensure that future imperial adventures would have the public’s eager support or at least its confused acquiescence.
This commitment to what the insiders called “perception management” began in earnest with the Reagan administration in the 1980s but it would come to be the accepted practice of all subsequent administrations, including the present one of President Barack Obama.
In that sense, propaganda in pursuit of foreign policy goals would trump the democratic ideal of an informed electorate. The point would be not to honestly inform the American people about events around the world but to manage their perceptions by ramping up fear in some cases and defusing outrage in others – depending on the U.S. government’s needs.
Thus, you have the current hysteria over Russia’s supposed “aggression” in Ukraine when the crisis was actually provoked by the West, including by U.S. neocons who helped create today’s humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine that they now cynically blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yet, many of these same U.S. foreign policy operatives – outraged over Russia’s limited intervention to protect ethic Russians in eastern Ukraine – are demanding that President Obama launch an air war against the Syrian military as a “humanitarian” intervention there.
In other words, if the Russians act to shield ethnic Russians on their border who are being bombarded by a coup regime in Kiev that was installed with U.S. support, the Russians are the villains blamed for the thousands of civilian deaths, even though the vast majority of the casualties have been inflicted by the Kiev regime from indiscriminate bombing and from dispatching neo-Nazi militias to do the street fighting.
In Ukraine, the exigent circumstances don’t matter, including the violent overthrow of the constitutionally elected president last February. It’s all about white hats for the current Kiev regime and black hats for the ethnic Russians and especially for Putin.
But an entirely different set of standards has applied to Syria where a U.S.-backed rebellion, which included violent Sunni jihadists from the start, wore the white hats and the relatively secular Syrian government, which has responded with excessive violence of its own, wears the black hats. But a problem to that neat dichotomy arose when one of the major Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, started seizing Iraqi territory and beheading Westerners.
Faced with those grisly scenes, President Obama authorized bombing the Islamic State forces in both Iraq and Syria, but neocons and other U.S. hardliners have been hectoring Obama to go after their preferred target, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, despite the risk that destroying the Syrian military could open the gates of Damascus to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
Lost on the Dark Side
You might think that the American public would begin to rebel against these messy entangling alliances with the 1984-like demonizing of one new “enemy” after another. Not only have these endless wars drained trillions of dollars from the U.S. taxpayers, they have led to the deaths of thousands of U.S. troops and to the tarnishing of America’s image from the attendant evils of war, including a lengthy detour into the “dark side” of torture, assassinations and “collateral” killings of children and other innocents.
But that is where the history of “perception management” comes in, the need to keep the American people compliant and confused. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration was determined to “kick the Vietnam Syndrome,” the revulsion that many Americans felt for warfare after all those years in the blood-soaked jungles of Vietnam and all the lies that clumsily justified the war.
So, the challenge for the U.S. government became: how to present the actions of “enemies” always in the darkest light while bathing the behavior of the U.S. “side” in a rosy glow. You also had to stage this propaganda theater in an ostensibly “free country” with a supposedly “independent press.”
From documents declassified or leaked over the past several decades, including an unpublished draft chapter of the congressional Iran-Contra investigation, we now know a great deal about how this remarkable project was undertaken and who the key players were.
Perhaps not surprisingly much of the initiative came from the Central Intelligence Agency, which housed the expertise for manipulating target populations through propaganda and disinformation. The only difference this time would be that the American people would be the target population.
For this project, Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director William J. Casey sent his top propaganda specialist Walter Raymond Jr. to the National Security Council staff to manage the inter-agency task forces that would brainstorm and coordinate this “public diplomacy” strategy.
Many of the old intelligence operatives, including Casey and Raymond, are now dead, but other influential Washington figures who were deeply involved by these strategies remain, such as neocon stalwart Robert Kagan, whose first major job in Washington was as chief of Reagan’s State Department Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America.
Now a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist at the Washington Post, Kagan remains an expert in presenting foreign policy initiatives within the “good guy/bad guy” frames that he learned in the 1980s. He is also the husband of Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who oversaw the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected President Viktor Yanukovych last February amid a very effective U.S. propaganda strategy.
During the Reagan years, Kagan worked closely on propaganda schemes with Elliott Abrams, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America. After getting convicted and then pardoned in the Iran-Contra scandal, Abrams reemerged on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council handling Middle East issues, including the Iraq War, and later “global democracy strategy.” Abrams is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
These and other neocons were among the most diligent students learning the art of “perception management” from the likes of Raymond and Casey, but those propaganda skills have spread much more widely as “public diplomacy” and “information warfare” have now become an integral part of every U.S. foreign policy initiative.