When members of Congress – or pundits and journalists, for that matter – are taken on tightly controlled visits to a war zone like Iraq, they undergo what the late Michigan Gov. George Romney famously referred to as “brainwashing.”

Romney said he had undergone a propaganda blitz when he visited Vietnam in 1965, persuading him that military progress was being achieved. Similarly, recent visitors to Iraq have flown home from August-recess trips with first-hand accounts about signs of success for President George W. Bush’s troop “surge.”

To bolster that case, Bush made his own surprise visit to a U.S. military base in Anbar province on Sept. 3 to tout growing cooperation between Sunni tribal leaders and American forces.

But the sheiks didn't seek out U.S. help because an additional 30,000 U.S. troops had been shipped to Iraq. Rather, the sheiks had found themselves caught between al-Qaeda extremists on one side and Shiite-dominated government forces on the other.

The Americans became the enemy and erstwhile friend, respectively, of my enemies – and thus an ally of convenience for the Sunni sheiks.

Indeed, the Anbar situation could be viewed as evidence that the political and ethnic divisions of Iraq continue to deepen – with Sunni traditionalists growing only more desperate. But these shifting sands of allegiances have become the foundation upon which Bush is building his case for open-ended U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

Back in Washington, Bush has played off this “good news” in Anbar and in some neighborhoods of Baghdad to establish a new conventional wisdom: the “surge” is succeeding and Bush deserves another blank check for the war.

This viewpoint has strengthened as think-tank analysts, pundits and members of Congress have returned from VIP tours of Iraq.

Bush’s political supporters have especially enjoyed citing perceived cracks in the Democratic anti-war phalanx, noting that even war critics returning from Iraq have admitted that Bush’s strategy has made progress -- and that Rep. Brian Baird, D-Washington, has defected to Bush’s side.

“I have seen firsthand the progress they have made, and I firmly believe we must give them the time and resources they need to succeed,” Baird said on his return.

But are Baird and the others just the latest politicians and analysts to be “brainwashed” while on a tightly managed “fact-finding” trip to a war zone? Or has meaningful progress actually occurred?

‘Potemkin’ Bazaars

Washington Post correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan investigated the security situation in Iraq and discovered that much of the perceived progress was a case of “Potemkin” scenes that looked promising on the outside but lacked either reality or durability when examined in greater detail.

“Visits to key U.S. bases and neighborhoods in and around Baghdad show that recent improvements are sometimes tenuous, temporary, even illusory,” Raghavan wrote. “In many areas, U.S. forces are now working at cross-purposes with Iraq’s elected Shiite-led government by financing onetime Sunni insurgents. … The loyalties of the Iraqi military and police – widely said to be infiltrated by Shiite militias – remain in doubt.”

Regarding the P.R. use of shopping scenes at Baghdad’s Dora market as proof of Bush’s progress, some American soldiers assigned to the project complained about how the showcasing concealed critical shortcomings.

Under pressure from field commander Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. forces got about 300 shops to reopen in time for VIP visits (compared with more than 850 shops before the U.S. invasion). But some storekeepers had few goods to sell, stayed open only a few hours and took part in the charade because they were paid $2,500.

“Although they sell dust, they are open for business,” said 1st Lt. Jose Molina, who was in charge of monitoring and disbursing the grant money. “They intend to sell goods or they may just have a handful of goods. But they are still counted.”

Another U.S. soldier, Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, told the Post correspondent, “personally, I think it’s a false representation. But what can I say? I’m just doing my job and don’t ask questions.” [Washington Post, Sept. 4, 2007]

Though the stage-managed VIP tours might look like obvious deceptions to U.S. troops on the ground, they proved to be extremely effective in coloring the judgments of members of Congress and think-tank analysts.

Even before Congress rushed off for its August recess, it was clear that a propaganda offensive could be expected around these war-zone tours.

On July 15, during a testy exchange on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, cited his multiple visits to Iraq to buttress his case in support of Bush’s policies. But Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, a decorated Vietnam veteran, mocked the value of such trips.

“I’ve been seven times,” Graham said in chiding Webb for not undertaking his own visits to Iraq.

“You haven’t been to Iraq; you get the dog-and-pony shows,” responded Webb, recalling how he, as a young officer, had participated in similar briefings of VIPs during the Vietnam War.

Influential Article

Despite Webb’s warning, the VIP trips to Iraq still proved very effective in shaping the Inside-the-Beltway view of the “surge.”

After one military-chaperoned visit, Brookings Institution analysts Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon framed the debate by getting the New York Times to devote the top of its July 30 op-ed page to their pro-surge story, “A War We Just Might Win.”

In that piece, the Times let Pollack and O’Hanlon portray themselves as tough war critics “who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” After their visit, however, they concluded that they had no choice but to face the facts and admit undeniable signs of progress.

What the Times left out, however, was that Pollack and O’Hanlon had criticized the Bush administration harshly for not sending more troops to Iraq earlier. Their op-ed was praising a “surge” policy that they long had advocated.

Pollack, a former CIA analyst, also was author of a pre-invasion book entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. This fact was left out of the Times’ ID for Pollack in what may have been the first time that an author of a Times op-ed didn’t want the title of his book prominently featured. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The NYT’s New Pro-War Propaganda.”]

In the weeks that followed publication of their op-ed, Pollack and O’Hanlon were ubiquitous on TV news shows expounding on their enthusiasm for the “surge.” However, much less attention was given to a response to their op-ed written by seven 82nd Airborne soldiers finishing up 15-month tours in Iraq.

In their Aug. 19 article, “The War as We Saw It,” the soldiers – six sergeants and one Army specialist – called the political debate in Washington “surreal” and added:

“To believe that Americans, with an occupation force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. … We are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest that we see everyday.”

Yet, in contrast to the prominent play for Pollack and O’Hanlon, the Times buried the article by the seven servicemen on page 11 of its “Week in Review” section. The article got far less bounce on the chat shows, with even that limited debate often framed as whether the soldiers should be condemned for expressing personal opinions in wartime.

Fools, Anyone?

Despite that first-hand account by the soldiers – and the five-year history of Bush’s deceptions about Iraq – the Inside-the-Beltway consensus about the surge’s success continued to build.

Even Democratic presidential hopefuls, such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, began repositioning toward a less-critical stance on the war.

“We’ve begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Anbar province, it’s working,” Clinton told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 21, a comment that was trumpeted by Bush’s supporters.

But is anyone really fooled by the dog-and-pony shows of congressional/media guided tours of Iraq?

Some longtime Washington observers believe these trips often are taken by politicians and pundits who already have decided to shift toward a pro-war position and simply want to use the “battlefield visit” as a pretext for a “change of heart.”

Yet, having been on several of these war-zone congressional trips (as a pool reporter for the Associated Press in the 1980s), I can vouch for how effective the propaganda exercises can be. The late Gov. George Romney (yes, Mitt Romney’s father) was surely not the only politician (or journalist) to get “brainwashed.”

One of the features making the trips so effective is that the VIPs are not coddled; there is much less wining-and-dining than people might think. Usually, the congressional delegation (or CODEL) is flown into the war zone on a no-frills C-130 cargo plane with people sitting in slings hung from the ceiling, much as combat troops would.

Once on the ground, the VIPs are hustled into crisp military briefings from officers in combat fatigues. Then, there are flights aboard military helicopters to forward positions for the opportunity to chat with carefully selected soldiers, often representing the districts of visiting congressmen.

After the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, I flew with a CODEL, including Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyoming, to a nearby island where a mopping-up operation supposedly was still underway. Though we saw no actual fighting, we did join the soldiers as they ate their MREs, the barely edible “meals ready to eat” that are fed to troops in the field.

These trips achieve a “bonding” with the U.S. military much like what was accomplished by “embedding” American journalists in combat units during the Iraq invasion in 2003. The outsiders begin to see the carefully selected reality through the eyes of their military P.R. chaperones, rather than as truly independent observers.

Political Benefits

The VIPs also get political benefits. They can return home with photos and anecdotes about how they shared the tough battlefield conditions with real-life soldiers. And it doesn’t hurt to drop a little military jargon into a speech or two.

When I was on a helicopter trip with another CODEL in 1982 during the civil war in El Salvador, the VIPs got a taste of military action when the helicopter pilot reported that he had detected electronic signals from a surface-to-air missile locking on.

The pilot engaged in some evasive maneuvers that tossed the VIPs around and the copter circled back to a more secure landing site. I was never sure if the threat was real, if the pilot was just showing extra caution because of his payload, or if the exercise was put on for the benefit of the CODEL, whose members could use it to spice up their reports back home.

On Aug. 30 in Iraq, a similar situation occurred aboard a military cargo plane carrying three Republican senators and a Democratic congressman as it took evasive action while departing Baghdad’s airport.

The VIPs – Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Mel Martinez of Florida and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Rep. Robert Cramer of Alabama – said the C-130 drew fire from three rocket-propelled grenades as it climbed.

“It was a scary moment,” Martinez told reporters. “Our pilots were terrific. They banked in one direction and then banked in the other direction, and they set off flares.”

Martinez added that he quickly put his body armor back on.

“We were jostled around pretty good,” said Cramer. “There were a few minutes there where I wondered, ‘Have we been hit? Are we O.K.?’”

Many similar tales of CODEL derring-do will surely liven up the Capitol Hill debate as Congress prepares to grant Bush a new round of spending authority so he can continue the war in Iraq through 2008.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.

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