When my friend Vladan Sir first heard George Orwell's Animal Farm broadcast on either the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe (it's hard to remember which, he listened to both so much), he was 15 or 16, living in the mining-scarred region of northern Bohemia in Communist Czechoslovakia, in or around 1987. "It was amazing," he recalls, "how a fable could be so precise."
His parents, party members both, hadn't gotten around to letting him know that the entire system he'd been raised on was a fable in its own right, so when the same illegal source that delivered Billboard's Top 40 finally produced the forbidden anti-totalitarian classic he'd heard such excited rumors about, it carried the force of revelation. Within two years he was watching excitedly as his own high school teachers "cried during classes and apologized [that] they were teaching us bullshit."
President George W. Bush believes there are hundreds of millions of Vladans trapped in the Middle East, just waiting for the same sorts of sources that were directed at the Communist bloc between 1948 and 1989. The Arabic-language Radio Sawa (meaning "Together"), with a 2005 budget of $22 million, has been piping pop music and some news into the region since March 2002. Its satellite TV counterpart, Al Hurra ("The Free One"), with a $49 million 2005 budget, has been trying to counter the wildly popular Arabic channel Al Jazeera since February 2004. The $8 million Persian-language Radio Farda ("Tomorrow") beams State Department�friendly info into Iran.
But it wasn't these well-known propaganda efforts that made headlines in December. It was the news, first broken by the Los Angeles Times, that the Defense Department covertly owned at least one Iraqi radio station and newspaper, and has been secretly handing bags of cash to Iraqi journalists in exchange for writing pro-American articles and for running military-generated puff pieces disguised as Iraqi reporting.
The New York Times followed up the next day with actual examples. (My favorite is a Prophet Muhammad�quoting piece that began, "Western press and frequently those self-styled 'objective' observers of Iraq are often critics of how we, the people of Iraq, are proceeding down the path in determining what is best for our nation.") The Washington Post detailed an intentionally false story claiming that a captured Iraqi general had cooperated with Allied forces and sadly died of natural causes. (He actually kept his mouth shut and died under interrogation.) Knight-Ridder flushed out the details of the "Baghdad Press Club," which was founded by the U.S. military to funnel $200 a month to favored local journalists.
Each of these expos�s was based on leaks from mostly unnamed military officials alarmed by the counterproductive and possibly illegal incoherence of preaching the values of a free press on one hand while corrupting it with the other. "We'd better stop it," one "senior U.S. defense official in Washington" told Knight-Ridder, "or we are going to end up like we did in Vietnam."
Administration officials and their supporters are motivated by the same fear. "On Vietnam, elite opinion trumped popular opinion," Commentary's Norman Podhoretz warned in his influential September 2004 essay "World War IV." Those same anti-American elites, he argued, had reassembled in 2003 to form "a broader coalition than the antiwar movement spawned by Vietnam."
The solution? "Embracing new ways of engaging people across the world, as the U.S. Information Agency and Radio Free Europe did during the Cold War," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote last July in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Keep an eye on the prize, Rumsfeld's pal Podhoretz urged, and apply new technology to the same tactics honed during "World War III," when "we as a nation persisted in spite of the inevitable setbacks and mistakes and the defeatism they generated."Podhoretz is a fitting advocate for the return of Cold War cloak-and-daggerism. Like his fellow founder of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, he received CIA propaganda funds for much of the 1950s and '60s, via the agency's Congress for Cultural Freedom, a shop for anti-communist liberals that subsidized both Commentary and the influential Encounter.
Until these covert ties were exposed in 1967 by the muckraking lefty magazine Ramparts, the CIA served as what the foreign policy eminence George Kennan--the author of the "containment" strategy and co-architect of the Marshall Plan, yet a longtime critic of Cold War excesses--once called an unofficial "Ministry of Culture." It sent Jackson Pollock to Berlin and Dizzy Gillespie to the Middle East, funded dozens of U.S. publications, and laundered money to writers and thinkers through Time Inc. and the Ford Foundation.
So what did lining New York intellectuals' pockets contribute to the collapse of communism? It's a highly disputed historical question, and with the end of the Cold War and the gradual opening of formerly secret files it has generated a bounty of recent scholarship. "There are basically three schools of thought," wrote John Brown, of the University of Southern California's Center for Public Diplomacy, in a survey of the latest literature published on its Web site in July 2005: 1) that the government's cultural Cold War programs, "in effective and justifiable ways," "helped open up and eventually bring" down communism; 2) that they were of a "dubious morality and effectiveness"; and 3) "somewhere between the first two."
While the academics debated, the Bush administration was busy building an entire strategy based on Interpretation No. 1. More than a dozen government-funded studies have been conducted since 9/11 to determine just why the Middle East seems to hate us. The most influential is a late-2004 set of recommendations from the Defense Science Board (DSB), a high-level Pentagon advisory body. Among other things, it strongly urged the White House to fund an American version of the BBC; to pay heed to the "startling development" that "a blogger in a conflict zone [can] capture a digital image of an atrocity, upload it, paste it on a webpage, and have it available to millions in minutes"; and to shell out money for "distribution and production of selected foreign films" and for "Web communications including blogs, chat rooms, and electronic journals."
The administration clearly has taken this advice to heart (even while apparently ignoring the DSB's admonition that "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies"). But even a cursory glance at the one Cold War outlet most everyone seems to praise--Radio Free Europe--suggests that the administration hasn't learned even the lessons it thinks it has.
RFE was staffed by well-known emigr� intellectuals; Radio Sawa is staffed by Lebanese who famously mangle their Arabic. Czechs like Vladan were seeking to rejoin the West; few countries of the Middle East come from that tradition. Both RFE and Voice of America built up credibility over decades by insisting on a codified and surprisingly high standard of news gathering and impartiality; Radio Sawa ditched the guidelines when it was launched on the fresh bones of a shuttered Arabic Voice of America.
And East Bloc residents, living as they did before the Web, were genuinely starved for information. "Muslims generally and Islamists specifically do not lack for reliable information," the Middle East scholar and Iraq hawk Daniel Pipes pointed out in a December column for The Jerusalem Post. The White House's information strategists, Pipes wrote, are "like generals fighting the last war."
They've also forgotten one of their most potent weapons: the truth. From 1953 to 1999, the U.S. Information Agency ran the government's "public diplomacy" efforts abroad, emphasizing factual arguments and transparency. "Our material was self-serving, of course, but it was reprinted by influential local publications because it was relevant and trustworthy," former USIA Nigeria official Patricia Lee Sharpe recalled in a January essay at the foreign-affairs site WhirledView. "That respect rested on two pillars: facts--and honest open attribution. Nothing phony. Nothing hidden. We didn't slip cash to editors or reporters. We didn't conceal our authorship."