Beating a Dead Horse

Joel Bleifuss

Conventional wisdom has it that you won’t get far beating a dead horse. But let us give it one last whack, for in Reagan’s case the old horse still has legs, two hind ones holding up an ass—George Bush.Not only are Reagan and Bush strangers to the truth (See Editorial, page 3), their administrations’ policies are strikingly parallel.In the same way that Reagan led a war against communism in Central America, Bush has gone to war against terrorism in Iraq. In both cases the pretext was bogus.In Central America, popular movements in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua threatened only ruling oligarchies and the holdings of a few U.S. multinational corporations. Yet the United States still supported death squads and the proxy Contra army to put down these rebellions at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.Similarily, in Iraq, the Bush administration uses the war on terrorism to pursue its scheme to reshape the political landscape of the Middle East and, in the process, control one of the world’s largest oil reserves. Never mind that Saddam had no connection to bin Laden or that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would only aid al Qaeda recruitment efforts, while diverting attention and resources from the very real threat posed by al Qaeda.Of course, the scheme would not have worked had the Bush administration not taken a chapter from the Reagan administration playbook.The Reagan administration sold its war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government by mounting a domestic covert operation. In 1983 CIA Director William Casey set up an elaborate propaganda apparatus with the help of corporate America. “A group of public relations specialists met with Bill Casey a few days ago,” reads a 1983 National Security Council memo. “The group included Bill Greener, the public affairs head at Phillip Morris, and two or three others. They stated what needed to be done to generate a nationwide campaign … an effective communications system inside the government. The overall purpose would be to sell a ‘new product’—Central America.”That “inside system” became the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, headed by Otto Reich (who resigned as Bush’s special envoy to Latin America on June 16). Operating out of the State Department, though reporting directly to the National Security Council, Reich commanded a unit of psyops, or psychological operations, agents on loan from the Army. The mission of this covert operation was to sell Congress, the media and the American people on the administration’s war against leftists in Central America. The overall theme of the propaganda campaign: “The Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters are fighters for freedom in the American tradition, FSLN [Sandinistas] are evil.”A similar campaign was mounted by the Bush administration to sell a “new product”—Iraq. At its head was John Rendon, who for the past decade has worked on Iraq for the Pentagon and CIA. In a speech to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Rendon said: “I am a politician and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager.” As John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton observed, “Rendon’s description of himself as a ‘perception manager’ echoes the language of Pentagon planners, who define ‘perception management’ as ‘actions to convey and (or) deny selected information and indicators to influence emotions, motives and objective reasoning. … In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psyops.’ ” (See “How to Sell a War,” September 1, 2003.)During Reagan’s reign, reporters who refused to toe the administration’s line on Central America were hounded. Reich, in his role as information minister, conducted dozens of visits to newspapers and networks, including one to National Public Radio (NPR), where he raged about coverage of the war in Nicaragua. Reich warned news editors there that he had “a special consultant listening to all NPR programs.”Harassing visits to NPR are a thing of the past. This administration is working to stack the board of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, which provides public funds to NPR and PBS, and thereby influence content.The budget priorities of the two administrations also are much alike. A perpetual state of war, whether against communism or terrorism, is expensive, and Bush, like Reagan, has responded by calling for huge increases in the defense budget—increases made possible only by cutting social programs.During Reagan’s last formal press conference in December 1988, the first question he took was from the indefatigable Helen Thomas. She asked Reagan: “As you leave office, the nation is saddled with a $2.6 trillion debt, an enormous deficit, caused perhaps by the tripling of military spending and tax cuts. … Some of your former associates claim that you deliberately created a larger deficit in order to dismantle the compassionate social programs for the poor, the sick, the needy, the handicapped, the elderly, which you didn’t like. Is that true?” He responded, “No, Helen that is not true, and that is, I guess, political propaganda.”Today the deficit is approaching record levels and the same charges are being made against Bush. The difference is that Thomas, now 83, has been relegated from her front-row seat to the back of the room and the president never calls on her. This happened when, after covering the White House for 40 years, Thomas had the temerity to announce in regard to Bush, “This is the worst president ever. He is the worst president in all of American history.”And considering Reagan’s record, that is saying a lot.Take AIDS. Consider the following October 15, 1982, exchange between a reporter and Reagan Press Secretary Larry Speakes:Reporter Larry, does the president have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta—that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases.Speakes What’s AIDS?Reporter Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” [Laughter.] No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that has this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?Speakes I don’t have it. Do you? [Laughter.]Reporter No I don’t.Speakes You didn’t answer my question.Reporter Well, I just wondered, does the president …Speakes How do you know? [Laughter.]Reporter In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?Five years, and 41,027 deaths later, Reagan finally uttered “AIDS” in public.Today, 21.8 million AIDS deaths later, Bush on the one hand extols the virtues of sexual abstinence, perhaps a worthy goal for teenagers, but not a lesson the 40 million people in the world currently living with AIDS need to hear. On the other, he protects the patent rights of the pharmaceutical industry from infringement by Third World countries in desperate need of life-saving AIDS drugs.Such policies, or lack thereof, accurately reflect the morally bankrupt nature of both the Reagan and Bush administrations.Recall how Reagan came to power.In his inaugural speech on January 20, 1981, Reagan bragged, “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” If so, it was a day of miracles: Just minutes after Reagan was sworn in, 52 American hostages were freed by Iranian militants after being held captive for 444 days.But in the cynical and calculated world of international diplomacy, real miracles are rare. As a large body of circumstantial evidence suggests, Reagan’s eventful Inauguration Day had less to do with Providence than his campaign’s illegal, covert efforts to persuade Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after Election Day to ensure Jimmy Carter’s defeat.It came to be known as the “October Surprise,” a scandal involving high crimes—the treasonous activity and subversion of constitutional government by a cabal of private individuals. The October Surprise inaugurated an era of Republican deception, dirty tricks and coverups—Iran-Contra, Whitewater, the 2000 election in Florida—that continues to this day.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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