How the public relations industry sold the Gulf War to the US
-- The mother of all clients
By John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton*
On August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops led by dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the oil-producing nation of Kuwait. Like Noriega in Panama, Hussein had been a US ally for nearly a decade. From 1980 to 1988, he had killed about 150,000 Iranians, in addition to at least 13,000 of his own citizens. Despite complaints from international human rights groups, however, the Reagan and Bush administrations had treated Hussein as a valuable ally in the US confrontation with Iran. As late as July 25 -- a week before the invasion of Kuwait -- US Ambassador April Glaspie commiserated with Hussein over a "cheap and unjust" profile by ABC's Diane Sawyer, and wished for an "appearance in the media, even for five minutes," by Hussein that "would help explain Iraq to the American people."1
Glaspie's ill-chosen comments may have helped convince the dictator that Washington would look the other way if he "annexed" a neighboring kingdom. The invasion of Kuwait, however, crossed a line that the Bush Administration could not tolerate. This time Hussein's crime was far more serious that simply gassing to death another brood of Kurdish refugees. This time oil was at stake.
Viewed in strictly moral terms, Kuwait hardly looked like the sort of country that deserved defending, even from a monster like Hussein. The tiny but super-rich state had been an independent nation for just a quarter century when in 1986 the ruling al-Sabah family tightened its dictatorial grip over the "black gold" fiefdom by disbanding the token National Assembly and firmly establishing all power in the be-jeweled hands of the ruling Emir. The, as now, Kuwait's ruling oligarchy brutally suppressed the country's small democracy movement, intimidated and censored journalists, and hired desperate foreigners to supply most of the nation's physical labor under conditions of indentured servitude and near-slavery. The wealthy young men of Kuwait's ruling class were know as spoiled party boys in university cities and national capitals from Cairo to Washington.2
Unlike Grenada and Panama, Iraq had a substantial army that could not be subdued in a mere weekend of fighting. Unlike the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Hussein was too far away from US soil, too rich with oil money, and too experienced in ruling through propaganda and terror to be dislodged through the psychologicalwarfare techniques of low-intensity conflict. Waging a war to push Iraq's invading army from Kuwait would cost billions of dollars and require massive US military mobilization. The American public was notoriously reluctant to send its young into foreign battles on behalf of any cause. Selling war in the Middle East to the American people would not be easy. Bush would need to convince Americans that former ally Saddam Hussein now embodied evil, and that the oil fiefdom of Kuwait was a struggling young democracy. How could the Bush Administration build US support for "liberating" a country so fundamentally opposed to democratic values? How could the war appear noble and necessary rather than a crass grab to save cheap oil?
"If and when a shooting war starts, reporters will begin to wonder why American soldiers are dying for oil-rich sheiks," warned Hal Steward, a retired army public relations (PR) official. "The US military had better get cracking to come up with a public relations plan that will supply the answer the public can accept."3
Steward needn't have worried. A PR plan was already in place,
paid for almost entirely by the "oil-rich sheiks" themselves.
Packaging the Emir, Part 1
US Congressman Jimmy Hayes of Louisiana -- a conservative Democrat who supported the Gulf War -- later estimated that the government of Kuwait funded as many as 20 PR, law and lobby firms in its campaign to mobilize US opinion and force against Hussein.4 Participating firms included the Rendon Group, which received a retainer of $100,000 per month for media work, and Neill & Co., which received $50,000 per month for lobbying Congress. Sam Zakhem, a former US ambassador to the oil-rich gulf state of Bahrain, funneled $7.7 million in advertising and lobbying dollars through two front groups, the "Coalition for Americans at Risk" and the "Freedom Task Force. The Coalition, which began in the 1980s as a front for the contras in Nicaragua, prepared and placed TV and newspaper ads, and kept a stable of fifty speakers available for pro-war rallies and publicity events.5
Hill & Knowlton (H&K), then the world's largest PR firm, served as mastermind for the Kuwaiti campaign. It's activities alone would have constituted the largest foreign-funded campaign ever aimed at manipulating American public opinion. By law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act should have exposed this propaganda campaign to the American people, but the Justice Department chose not to enforce it. Nine days after Saddam's army marched into Kuwait, the Emir's government agreed to fund a contract under which Hill & Knowlton would represent "Citizens for a Free Kuwait" (CFK) a classic PR front group designed to hide the real role of the Kuwaiti government and its collusion with the Bush administration. Over the next six months, the Kuwaiti government channeled $11.9 million dollars to Citizens for a Free Kuwait, whose only other funding totalled $17,862 from 78 individuals. Virtually all of CFK's budget -- $10.8 million -- went to Hill & Knowlton in the form of fees.6
The man running Hill & Knowlton's Washington office was Craig Fuller, one of Bush's closest friends and inside political advisors. The news media never bothered to examine Fuller's role until after the war had ended, but if American's editors had read the PR trade press, they might have noticed this announcement, published in O'Dwyer's PR Services before the fighting began: "Craig L. Fuller, chief of staff to Bush when he was vice-president, has been on the Kuwaiti account at Hill & Knowlton since the first day. He and [Bob] Dilenschneider at one point made a trip to Saudi Arabia, observing the production of some 20 videotapes, among other chores. The Wirthlin Group, research arm of H&K, was the pollster for the Reagan Administration . . . Wirthlin has reported receiving$1.1 million in fees for research assignments for the Kuwaitis. Robert K. Gray, Chairman of H&K/USA based in Washington, DC has leading roles in both Reagan campaigns. He has been involved in foreign nation accounts for many years . . . Lauri J. Fitz-Pegado, account supervisor on the Kuwait account, is a former Foreign Service Officer at the US Information Agency who joined Gray when he set up his firm in 1982:"7
In addition to Republican notables like Gray and Fuller, Hill & Knowlton maintained a well-connected stable of in-house Democrats who helped develop the bipartisan support needed to support the war. Lauri Fitz-Pegado, who headed the Kuwait campaign, had previously worked with super-lobbyist Ron Brown representing Haiti's Duvalier dictatorship. Hill & Knowlton senior vicepresident Thomas Ross had been Pentagon spokesman during the Carter Administration. To manage the news media, H&K relied on vicechairman Frank Mankiewicz, whose background included service as press secretary and advisor to Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern, followed by a stint as president of National Public Radio. Under his direction, Hill & Knowlton arranged hundreds of meetings, briefings, calls and mailings directed toward the editors of daily newspapers and other media outlets.
Jack O'Dwyer had reported on the PR business for more than twenty years, but he was awed by the rapid and expansive work of H&K on behalf of Citizens for a Free Kuwait. "Hill & Knowlton . . . has assumed a role in world affairs unprecedented for a PR firm. H&K has employed a stunning variety of opinion-forming devices and techniques to help keep US opinion on the side of the Kuwaitis . . . The techniques range from full-scale press conferences showing torture and other abuses by the Iraqis to the distribution of tens of thousand of 'Free Kuwait" T-shirts and bumper stickers at colleges campuses across the US."8
Documents filed with the US Department of Justice showed that 119 H&K executives in 12 offices across the US were overseeing the Kuwait account. "The firm's activities, as listed in its report to the Justice Department, included arranging media interview for visiting Kuwaitis, setting up observances such as National Free Kuwait Day, National Prayer Day (for Kuwait), and National Student Information Day, organizing public rallies, releasing hostage letters to the media, distributing news releases and information kits, contacting politicians at all levels, and producing a nightly radio show in Arabic from Saudi Arabia, wrote Arthur Rowse in the Progressive after the war. Citizens for a Free Kuwait also capitalized on the publication of a quickie 154-page book about Iraqi atrocities titled The Rape of Kuwait, copies of which were stuffed into media kits and then featured on TV talk shows and the Wall Street Journal. The Kuwaiti embassy also bought 200,000 copies of the book for distribution to American troops.9
TO BE CONTINUED. Yet to come: "Packaging the Emir, Part 2,"
"Suffer the little children," and "Front-line flacks."
1. John R. MacArthur, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in
the Gulf War (Berkeley, CA: University of CA Press, 1992),
3. Hal D. Steward, "A Public Relations Plan for the US Military
in the Middle East," Public Relations Quarterly, Winter (1990-
91), p. 10.
4. "H&K leads PR charge in behalf of Kuwaiti cause," O'Dwyer's PR
Services Report, Vol. 5, No., Jan 1991, p. 8.
5. "Citizens for Free Kuwait Files with FARA after a Nine-month
Lag," O'Dwyers FARA Report, Vol. 1, No. 9, Oct. 1991, p. 2.
See also Arthur E. Rowse, "Flacking for the Emir," The
Progressive, May 1991, p. 22.
6. O'Dwyer's FARA Report, Vol. 1, No. 9, Oct. 1991, p.2.
7. O'Dwyer's FARA Report, Vol. 5, No. 1, Jan. 1991, pp 8, 10.
8. Ibid, p. 1.
9. Rowse, pp. 21-22.
*From: Toxic Sludge is Good for you! Lies, Damn Lies and the
Public Relations Industry (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press,
** From Blazing Tattles (BT) May 1996. Email sent to Blazing
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