Once again we are confronted with stories about how the Pentagon and its ubiquitous private contractors are undermining free inquiry in Iraq. "Muslim Scholars Were Paid to Aid U.S. Propaganda," reports the New York Times. Journalists, intellectuals or clerics taking money from Uncle Sam or, in this case, a Washington-based public relations company, is seen as morally troubling and counterproductive. Sensible Muslims obviously would not want to listen to the advice of an American-paid consultant; anti-insurgent Sunni clerics can now all be slurred as corrupt stooges.
There is one big problem with this baleful version of events. Historically, it doesn't make much sense. The United States ran enormous covert and not-so-covert operations known as "CA" activities throughout the Cold War. With the CIA usually in the lead, Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars on book publishing, magazines, newspapers, radios, union organizing, women's and youth groups, scholarships, academic foundations, intellectual salons and societies, and direct cash payments to individuals (usually scholars, public intellectuals and journalists) who believed in ideas that America thought worthy of support.
It's difficult to assess the influence of these covert-action programs. But when an important Third World political leader writes that a well-known liberal Western book had an enormous impact on his intellectual evolution -- a book that, unbeknownst to him was translated and distributed in his country at CIA expense -- then it's clear that the program had value. It shouldn't be that hard for educated Americans to support such activity, even though one often can't gauge its effectiveness.
Nor should it be so hard to support even more aggressive clandestine action in developing democracies such as Iraq. Let us make a Cold War parallel. As is well known, the CIA for years financially maintained the British journal Encounter. This magazine, which was perhaps the most important English-language outlet for anti-communist U.S. and European writers, influenced debates among the Western intelligentsia from the 1950s through the '70s. By bang-for-the-buck calculation, it may be the most effective nonmilitary highbrow covert action the United States has funded.
Does anyone seriously believe that the French intellectual giant Raymond Aron was compromised by regularly writing for this publication or for French magazines also funded by the CIA? Regardless of whether Aron or others at Encounter might have suspected that their checks were cut by the U.S. taxpayer, are their insights and reporting any less relevant and true?
A historian looking at Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty when it was subsumed within the CIA would probably find it hard to suggest that it was less truthful or more subject to political manipulation than today's Radio Liberty, which operates under the oversight of the politicized and idiosyncratic Board of Broadcasting Governors. RFE-RL was probably the most successful "soft power" expenditure that Washington ever made. East European and Soviet dissidents didn't have a problem with the CIA backing. The issue with them, as it is today with Uzbeks listening to Radio Liberty or Muslims elsewhere reading or listening to U.S.-supported material, is whether the content echoes the reality that they know.
Contrary to what is commonly believed, CIA funding of intellectual "propaganda" projects -- including direct cash payments to American and foreign journalists -- has usually been done with the lightest touch. In my direct experience, and in reading files covering CA activity in Europe and the Middle East, I never saw an instance in which agency officers manipulated the final product. What was regrettable was that CIA officials often didn't have the linguistic skill or education to match the countries they covered and had no real grasp of what their CA assets were writing.
Why did the United States spend so much covert-action money in Western Europe after World War II? Washington was unsure of Western Europe's commitment to democracy and its resolve to oppose the Soviet Union and its proxy European communist parties. The programs had to be clandestine: The foreigners involved usually could not have operated with open U.S. funding without jeopardizing their lives, their families or their reputations. Did these CA projects retard or damage the growth of a free press and free inquiry in Western Europe after World War II? I think an honest historical assessment would conclude that U.S. covert aid advanced both.
Surely democracy in Iraq is at least as shaky as it was in Western Europe after the defeat of Hitler. The real complaint that ought to be made against the Bush administration is that it has allowed such important work to be contracted to a public relations firm (in the case cited above, the Lincoln Group) that has done a poor job of protecting anonymity. Nevertheless, one has to give the Pentagon credit: It seems to be the only government agency that is at least trying to develop Iraqi cadres to wage the "hearts and minds" campaign. The CIA seems to have all but abandoned its historical mission in this area.
The Bush administration shouldn't flinch from increasing its covert "propaganda" efforts in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The history in the last great war of ideas is firmly on its side.
The writer, a former CIA case officer, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He will answer questions about this column today at 3:30 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com.
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