The Powell and Petraeus shows

There has been a huge media build up over the so-called Petraeus report, the progress report by the US commander in Iraq David Petraeus, on how the ‘surge’ strategy in Iraq is going. The report is due to be presented on Monday, September 10, 2007.

This has to be seen as another example of how media is managed by this administration. The Los Angeles Times reports that “Despite Bush’s repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government.”

Is anyone really expecting a report written by the White House to criticize its own policy of the surge? My guess is that it will actually serve its political ends, although it will be presented as an objective view from the ground in Iraq and say something along the following lines: “The situation in Iraq is tough but we are seeing definite signs of progress. To leave now would be to destroy all that has been achieved and risk a full-scale civil war. We need to wait at least another six months to see the full benefits of the surge.”

This practice of repeatedly shifting the goal posts by six months (the infamous Friedman unit) has become so routine that it is hard to believe that people don’t recognize the pattern. People old enough to remember the Vietnam war will recall the famous “light at the end of the tunnel” that the administration of Lyndon Johnson and then commander William Westmoreland promised, with the light and the tunnel’s end steadily receding.

Paul Krugman’s recent New York Times op-ed points out the similarities in the modes of operation of both Colin Powell and Petraeus and the way the adoring media portray them. But both of them are personally ambitious and politically and media savvy people who use their military credentials to give an illusion of objectivity to their views. Both show an adeptness at ingratiating themselves with those in a position to advance their careers by acquiescing in and advocating the policies desired by their bosses, while using their media sources to distance themselves from the disastrous consequences of those policies.

As Krugman reminds us, Powell’s most infamous moment was of course his speech to the UN which caused the media to swoon and overlook the glaring holes in his evidence. Powell has been backtracking on that speech ever since, trying to ingratiate himself with the public by portraying himself as a skeptic even then who was simply being a ‘good soldier’ for the administration by carrying its water. (Those who see Powell’s UN speech as the sole blot on an otherwise exemplary life have not really been following his career. For a much more accurate history of Powell than you will find in the adoring media, see here.)

In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing the United Nations Security Council, claimed to have proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He did not, in fact, present any actual evidence, just pictures of buildings with big arrows pointing at them saying things like “Chemical Munitions Bunker.” But many people in the political and media establishments swooned: they admired Mr. Powell, and because he said it, they believed it.

Mr. Powell’s masters got the war they wanted, and it soon became apparent that none of his assertions had been true.

Until recently I assumed that the failure to find W.M.D., followed by years of false claims of progress in Iraq, would make a repeat of the snow job that sold the war impossible. But I was wrong. The administration, this time relying on Gen. David Petraeus to play the Colin Powell role, has had remarkable success creating the perception that the “surge” is succeeding, even though there’s not a shred of verifiable evidence to suggest that it is.
. . .
Above all, we should remember that the whole point of the surge was to create space for political progress in Iraq. And neither that leaked G.A.O. report nor the recent National Intelligence Estimate found any political progress worth mentioning. There has been no hint of sectarian reconciliation, and the Iraqi government, according to yet another leaked U.S. government report, is completely riddled with corruption.

But, say the usual suspects, General Petraeus is a fine, upstanding officer who wouldn’t participate in a campaign of deception – apparently forgetting that they said the same thing about Mr. Powell.

First of all, General Petraeus is now identified with the surge; if it fails, he fails. He has every incentive to find a way to keep it going, in the hope that somehow he can pull off something he can call success.

And General Petraeus’s history also suggests that he is much more of a political, and indeed partisan, animal than his press would have you believe. In particular, six weeks before the 2004 presidential election, General Petraeus published an op-ed article in The Washington Post in which he claimed – wrongly, of course – that there had been “tangible progress” in Iraq, and that “momentum has gathered in recent months.”

Is it normal for serving military officers to publish articles just before an election that clearly help an incumbent’s campaign? I don’t think so.

Petraeus seems to be following in the Powell mode, knowing that for a nation desperate to have people in public life that they think are honorable, acting as if he is a competent, impartial, military, ‘just-the-facts’ person almost guarantees public relations success, despite it becoming increasingly clear that he is very much a political actor, advancing his career by working both the political and media tracks.


  1. says

    Don’t you think it’s a little odd that you lambast the “adoring media” on one hand, but then turn around and cite the LA Times regarding the actual source of the reports contents?

  2. says


    It is not at all odd. Although I dig around and read a lot of diverse sources, I try as much as possible to cite sources in the mainstream media because the general public views them as more credible. And you can usually find good, solid information in them. The catch is that those accurate bits are isolated and swamped by the rubbish, so that the overall impression is quite different. See my detailed series on how the media propaganda model works. (Look down the right side headings for items about filters).

    For example, while the LA Times mentioned this item almost in passing, you would be hard-pressed to find a lot of other media sources highlighting it.

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