July 2, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Abu Ghraib Shows Limits of Carnival Barking

The media may not be aware of it, but the Bush administration has a good story to tell about its efforts to democratize and pacify the Middle East. The complainers may dominate the headlines, but millions of Afghanis and Iraqis are glad that Uncle Sam expelled the Taliban and ended Saddam's brutal regime.

Yet images of American GIs grinning over Iraqi prisoner pyramids could well become the symbol for U.S. military involvement in the region, much as the picture of a blindfolded American hostage in Iran dogged the Carter administration. Even the editors of National Review magazine, normally friendly to the administration, have pointed to a weakness in international communications, a.k.a. public diplomacy.

Over the past year, the Bush administration has ignored fundamental principles of public relations (or public affairs, as it's called in government) that could have prevented the scandal at Abu Ghraib -- and could help it respond to questions over missing weapons of mass destruction.

For one thing, the administration chose press agentry over two-way communication. It should have been identifying the interests and concerns of various American and international audiences -- including Iraqis, detainees and their families -- whose consensus is needed to liberate and pacify Iraq.

Instead, officials opted for publicity management -- issuing news releases, checking camera angles and keeping spokesmen on message. Such tactics are fine for political campaigns when there is little time to develop a relationship with various audiences. But it does little to foster public understanding that can outlast temporary negative news.

Unfortunately, the publicist mentality guides public affairs and dominates decision-making at the upper echelons of this government. In the "Bush 41" administration, access to decision-makers was managed to reward friendly journalists and keep hostile ones at bay.

The Clinton era brought in the notorious "war room" spin machine to trumpet achievements and blunt the effects of White House scandals. With the current Bush administration, public affairs and public diplomacy activities seem aimed at feeding positive news stories to the media more than developing consensus at home or abroad.

A half-century ago, communications pioneer Edward Bernays described public relations as an ombudsman function between the client and the public, "a special pleader before the court of public opinion." His seminal books on the subject stressed the need to pinpoint various audiences and develop two-way communication with them using multiple channels to link an organization's activities to its interests.

In Iraq, apparently, no one thought that detainees or their families might be such an audience. Moreover, it seems no one expected prisoner treatment to fall under the spotlight of public scrutiny in a country that had no government or laws and was occupied by a foreign army.

Second, the administration seems caught in a reactive mode with respect to communications. As a result, public affairs officers neglect to look ahead for potential problems that could jeopardize the overall mission.

Whether military public affairs officers even knew what was going on last year in the Abu Ghraib prison remains to be seen. Understandably, military and civilian public affairs officers in Iraq have had to respond to non-stop queries and prepare for endless press conferences. But they should have been included in discussion of the problems in coalition prisons and counseled on what the impact might be if they became public.

Finally, the administration neglected to reveal bad news as quickly and completely as possible -- a basic rule in corporate public affairs and a key concept in military public-affairs doctrine.

In the prison crisis, the passage of time led to a dilemma typical in cases of internal troubles: whether to acknowledge them as information started leaking or to keep things under wraps so as not to prejudice possible criminal proceedings. Unfortunately, time is never on the side of secrecy. Stories eventually hit the streets, public emotions drive events and outside institutions such as Congress become involved.

It's a sad day when America's president has to apologize to the world for the irresponsible actions of employees in his chain of command. But awareness of various public concerns, early warning of internal problems and a willingness to disclose what is being done to correct them are proven ways to maintain consensus for the administration's actions and confidence in its decisions.

Stephen Johnson is a senior policy analyst and Helle Dale is director of foreign policy and defense studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

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