Sep 6, 2007

CODELS, Brainwashing, and the Anbar Awakening

Robert Parry on the domestic influence operation that is directing attention to the "Anbar Awakening" and the role of visiting VIPs in the effort.

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. ...

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. ...

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.

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.

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