Global Spin Doctors

We endure, ignore, or fall prey to as many as 20,000 ads a day. That’s one ad every three seconds of our waking hours. We wear ads on our shirts, forward commercials via email, sing jingles with our friends, and even brand corporate icons on our bodies. We’ve developed vaccines to address this particular virus. There’s Naomi Klein’s No Logo and the cheeky magazine Adbusters. There’s Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s radio program Counterspin andthe ad-stripping features of TiVo. But the virus continues to mutate and spread.

Geopolitics is not immune to this disease. Flip through any foreign policy magazine and you’ll find plenty of advertising. Governments, desperate for foreign investment and tourists, take out glossy “sponsored sections” in Foreign Affairs and “special advertising supplements” in Foreign Policy. The recent news from Nigeria has been pretty bleak: endemic corruption, bloody insurgency in the Niger Delta, fraudulent elections in 2007. The 10-page spread in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, however, mentions none of that: It’s all about growth, transparency, and investor confidence. Angola hired a slicker PR firm to design its recent 24-page section in Foreign Policy: nice pictures and graphics, upbeat interviews, and the repeated message that the country has lots and lots of oil. None of the smiling interview subjects mentions that the country hasn’t had a democratic election in two decades or that two-thirds of Angolans live on less than $2 a day.

Some of the spinning borders on the surreal. Equatorial Guinea paid the PR firm Cassidy & Associates $120,000 a month for an image makeover, which required transforming an oil-rich dictatorship ruled by the ultra-corrupt Teodoro Obiang into a palatable U.S. ally. All that loot translated into a prominent photo op with Condi Rice and her comment that Obiang was a “good friend.” When celebrities say stupid things in public or get nabbed for shoplifting, their agents shift into overdrive. The same thing happens to countries that get nailed in public for their horrendous human rights abuses. This is what Cassidy & Associates calls crisis communications: “[W]e put this strength to work on behalf of clients that require immediate communications support to protect themselves in the face of unexpected public image challenges.”

What takes place behind the scenes is perhaps the most pernicious. After all, we congratulate ourselves on seeing through the obvious advertisements. We would never fall for Nigeria’s third-rate spread in Foreign Affairs. We would never succumb to the seductions of a TV infomercial. We would never click on the ubiquitous pop-ups. But what about all the money that governments circulate through the media universe to grease wheels, influence politicians, or secure prized appearances on the TV talk shows?

Indeed, the PR race is not that different from the arms race. Russia, for instance, recently paid nearly $3 million to Ketchum for a six-month media blitz to promote the country’s leaders and policies. Georgia has retained Public Strategies, Inc. at $50,000 a month. And the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have hired Mark Saylor Co. at $30,000 a month. An uptick of spending on one side will inevitably lead to an increase on the other side, as PR becomes war by other means. The firms hope that the spin they set in motion will, through the alchemy of the media, turn into “facts” in an editorial, or an op-ed, or even a reporter’s dispatch.

Since 1938 and the Foreign Agents Registration Act, U.S. firms must disclose their relationships with foreign governments and entities. According to Kevin McCauley of O’Dwyer’s Public Relations News, these relationships began to snowball after the end of the Cold War. Kuwait’s government-in-exile put Hill and Knowlton on a princely retainer; Mexico hired several firms during the NAFTA negotiations; China launched a media blitz around the Hong Kong handover. “Post-9/11,” McCauley points out, “Saudi Arabia hired a number of firms to send out the message that it is a good ally, to stress the point that there is more moderation in Saudi Arabia.” Riyadh spends around $12 million a year to make sure that the U.S. media stays on this message.

With all this spin — overt and covert — what’s a poor reader to do? The last thing we should do is sit and spin with it. So, after all this decrying of advertising, let me end with a plug: for our very own Foreign Policy In Focus. We don’t take handouts from the Nigerian or Georgian governments. We rely on the support of foundations and individuals like you to provide unvarnished news, features, and analysis. Here’s the link to contribute.

Hah, what did I tell you? Advertising is everywhere.

Withdrawal from Iraq?

This week at a speech at the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Obama pledged again to have all combat brigades out of Iraq by next August and all U.S. troops out by the end of 2011.

Iraq and the United States formalized this arrangement in a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). But, as FPIF contributor Daniel Atzmon explains, the Maliki government in Iraq secured support for the SOFA only be agreeing to a popular referendum by the end of last month and a series of amendments known as the Reform Document. The government has met neither deadline.

“Had the referendum been held on July 30, the SOFA would have been likely defeated, as most Iraqis resent the American occupation,” Atzmon writes in The Bully in Baghdad. “If the SOFA was defeated, all American forces would have 12 months to leave Iraq, spoiling Obama’s slow withdrawal plans and leaving military planners the task of constructing an entirely new timetable for the American departure.”

The more likely scenario, argues FPIF contributor T. J. Buonomo, will resemble the British occupation of Iraq in the first part of the 20th century. “The British advisory apparatus operated effectively as a parallel government in Iraq,” he writes in Learning from the British in Iraq. “British intelligence advisers worked at the Iraqi interior ministry, British military advisers at the Iraqi defense ministry. These officials were strategically placed throughout the Iraqi government and military in order to gather intelligence and influence their Iraqi counterparts according to the dictates of British imperial interests. To ensure the continued primacy of these interests, the British High Commissioner in Iraq — the rough equivalent of a U.S. ambassador — retained the authority to veto decisions made by a decidedly unsovereign Iraqi government.”

Leadership in the Middle East, North America

The Obama administration, preoccupied this summer with the PR campaign around its health care plan, is working more quietly and more slowly to guide Israel and Palestine toward a comprehensive peace plan.

“Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are pushing the United States to offer its peace plan quickly,” writes FPIF contributor Ira Chernus in Inching toward Compromise in the Middle East. “The Obama administration is responding by putting on the brakes, though only gently. That would dampen excessively high expectations, preparing the public for the possibility that Obama’s initiative may be delayed. At the same time, Washington is sending a message to the parties who will be at the negotiating table: All of you had better make compromises now — and they’d better be the specific ones the administration is calling for — precisely because Uncle Sam will be flexing his muscle soon by laying down at least the general parameters, if not the specific terms, of a regional peace deal.”

At the recent NAFTA summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, meanwhile, the Obama administration missed an opportunity to show true leadership — on trade, drug policy, and swine flu. “Summit meetings like this are often a symbolic show of unity, while the real work goes on at lower levels below the public radar,” writes FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Lack of North American Leadership. “They don’t tend to produce many ‘deliverables.’ However, this is no excuse for the shallowness and contradictions of the Summit in Guadalajara. More than any previous North American summit meeting, this one should have taken the bull by its horns. The populations of all three countries need deliverables from their governments — and fast.”

The inability to demonstrate effective regional leadership is connected to a larger conceptual failure. As FPIF contributors Marc Raskin and Megan Cheney write in The Pursuit of True Security, “For years the United States has used military force as a Band-Aid for a wide-range of global problems ranging from the removal of dictators to ensuring access to global trade partners. Yet it’s clear that this has not been successful. For all of the money, time, and lives we have spent to maintain a colossal international force, we are no safer. It’s time to reexamine our military involvements and change our force distributions to reflect our goal: true security.”

Finally, we leave you with a Postcard from Dharamsala, from contributor Saransh Sehgal. He writes of the Tibetan exile community living in India. This community “has created a new Tibet away from Tibet — a Tibet 2.0 — that aims to be more modern and more internationally connected than the real, existing Tibet over the border.”

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.