The Pentagon’s Mad Men

Mad Men, the dynamic American Movie Classics original series about the daily mash and machinations of Madison Avenue circa 1960, has lamentably finished its fourth season. But who needs TV when we have our own mass media manipulation – E Ring style – going on right here in 2010?

While he might not have the suave and savvy of Donald Draper or the pluck and passion of Peggy Olsen, Gen. David Petraeus knows how to design and deliver one hell of an advertising campaign – remember, he sold not only the Surge in Iraq, but the so-called success of that Surge, to a public and a Congress largely disenchanted with the war to begin with. Now he is working his huckster charms once again – this time on spinning the progress and reconciliation narrative in Afghanistan.

“This is a PR avalanche,” exclaimed writer Pepe Escobar, in an email exchange with Antiwar.com. We should all have whiplash, the war having “turned a corner” so fast.

Yet the timing of Friday’s WikiLeaks release of some 400,000 military documents relating to the war in Iraq should have a neutralizing if not damning effect on Petraeus’s latest confidence game in Afghanistan. The forced optimism from the general and his surrogates, juxtaposed with the much-anticipated, official evidence that his “victory” in Iraq was nothing more than an elaborate Potemkin Village built on Pentagon lies – about body counts, civilian deaths, and horrific detainee abuse – gives us fresh context and the ammunition of truth.

David Petraeus and Don Draper

In other words, whatever Petraeus says now about Afghanistan will hopefully be judged against the military’s earlier lies and promulgations exposed by WikiLeaks today. But gathering from the skepticism already in the air, Petraeus’s military Mad Man reputation may be slipping fast.

Is Petraeus Losing the Battle of Perception?

The military has spoken pretty deliberately about the need to “get out in front” of the news, using its top flight PR and communications specialists to engage in the battle of perception with the insurgents – a battle Gen. Stanley McChrystal clearly admitted the U.S. military was losing in Afghanistan in 2009.

Though they would deny it, much of this shaping of perception was and is still aimed at the American public and the Congress – the consumers, the keepers of the purse strings – in order to sustain support for the war. Classic Madison Avenue: “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay, ” said Don Draper, explaining the art of advertising for Lucky Strikes cigarettes, in a 2007 episode of Mad Men.

But you’d have to be a dumb-dumb from way back to get fooled twice, and the WikiLeaks’ revelations are no doubt making the general’s info-ops shop in Kabul squirm. People don’t want to open up their papers and see Petraeus boasting about the progress being made in a bombing campaign next to photos of dead Iraqis no one was supposed to know about.

In Mad Men, Draper knew this trap, telling his staff to immediately pull the ads for an airline after one of its planes crashed into the Jamaica Bay in Season 2. “We don’t want people opening up their morning paper and seeing a Mohawk (Airlines) ad next to a picture of a floating engine.”

Truth is, foreign policy analysts from all over the map were already questioning the military’s sometimes wild claims of success in Afghanistan even before the massive WikiLeaks document dump. You know you’re slipping when loyal COINdinista Andrew Exum, who helped Gen. McChrystal shape the current strategy in Afghanistan, doubts the veracity of the “progress.” Meanwhile, for every dependable courtier (David Ignatius) attempting to ascribe Sun Tzu-like stratagem to the general’s course, there are two new critics who see his shift away from “population-centric COIN” to heavy artillery and air assaults as a transparent and predictable scheme to hustle the Taliban to the bargaining table, save face and hasten the end of the war –Iraq Surge style.

From Stephen Walt on Friday:

“So let me tell you what I think is going to happen. The United States is going to spend the next few months trying to clear out or kill as many Taliban as we can find, accompanied by a lot of optimistic reports about how well we are doing. This won’t be about a ‘hearts and minds’ approach or even a long-term strategy of nation-building; it will be about creating the appearance of momentum and success. At the same time, we’re going to try to shepherd a political process that can be sold as “peace deal” between the Karzai government and some moderate Taliban. If we’re really lucky and offer big enough bribes (oops, I mean foreign aid), we might get Pakistan to pretend to be on board too. And then Obama will claim ‘the Afghan surge worked’ sometime in the latter half of 2011, and begin withdrawing U.S. troops. …

“it may well be the best that can be made of a bad situation. But there is a subtle, long-term danger in this sort of sleight-of-hand. If we tell ourselves we won and then get out, we will end up learning the wrong lessons from the whole experience.”

It doesn’t help that the military canceled all press embeds for the Kandahar operation in October, effectively preventing any independent verification of the military’s recent claims, or monitoring of collateral damage and displacement. Instead, reports about the Taliban on the run, the top Taliban leaders killed or captured, the people returning to their villages – even the supposed high-level talks between the Taliban and Kabul – all of that has come mostly through ISAF press releases and sources, critics say.

“Officials are calling the operation a success — a claim difficult to confirm since no journalists were there to witness it,” wrote Ben Gilbert of the GlobalPost.

“I get the sinking feeling that we really have no idea how things are going,” writes Registan.net’s Joshua Foust. “The military is persisting that everything is awesome and we’re winning, while every single empirical measure we know of says the opposite. What is really going on in Afghanistan? Until the press stops willingly playing along in the DOD’s ‘messaging’ campaign against the American public, we will never really know.”

Inter Press Service (IPS) correspondent Gareth Porter was already sensing vulnerabilities in Petraeus’s message offensive in August, when he pointed out that the media refused to include a ISAF-generated quote about the Taliban “losing morale” in Marjah, most likely because of authentic, on-the-ground reports to the contrary. “Even though the news media has thus far refrained from challenging any of Petraeus’s claims of progress, not a single news outlet thus far has picked up the ISAF press release’s claim of lower insurgent morale,” Porter wrote on Aug. 31.

Porter has also been doing due diligence in parsing out Petraeus’s claims about the killing and capture of senior Taliban officials. “Petraeus has certainly cooked the books in making his claims of 365 ‘leaders’ being killed or captured,” Porter tells Antiwar.com. “And the claim of some 1,335 rank and file Taliban captured in 90 days is in fact nothing more than the number of suspects they have picked up. You can discount steeply with great confidence. As for the more than 1,000 said to have been killed, they are doing so many operations, there is no way it can be based on any reliable intelligence.”

Sounds like the military is engaging in the kind of Vietnam-era “body counts” that went out of the advertising playbooks nearly 40 years ago – and with good reason.

Perhaps Petraeus is slipping. Even Don Draper is forced to tear up copy and start from scratch once in a while. But more likely the problem here is that recent history (Iraq) is finally catching up to King David and it’s severely crimping his mojo, exposing his cynicism and frankly, his lack of imagination. Here’s Petraeus writing an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2004, before the place really blew up and we lost another 2,572 Americans over the next three years:

“Now, however, 18 months after entering Iraq, I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. The institutions that oversee them are being reestablished from the top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously in the face of an enemy that has shown a willingness to do anything to disrupt the establishment of the new Iraq.”

Compare this to August 2010, where Petraeus had this to say to NATO TV about the operation in Marjah, a “city” that was supposed to be a PR feather in the Marines’ cap, and the launch of COIN’s brilliant “government in the box” fix-it plan:

“You take an area like Marjah, certainly the TB is fighting to take back Marjah, one of the key command and control centers of the TB, and a nexus with the illegal narcotics (sic) industry bosses, (it) is no longer in their control. In fact, last week voter registration was carried out for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Marjah. Something that was unthinkable six months ago. I’ve walked through the market in Marjah and the same can be said in a number of other areas, again in the those six central (Helmand) districts, and even outside them.”

Since that interview, ISAF lost 111 soldiers in Afghanistan, and the Marines are reportedly facing a “full blown insurgency” in Marjah.

The pattern is obvious, but it just may be that most Americans naturally prefer the Madison Avenue version of “happiness,” and “stability,” and will allow the Great General to do his thing (writer Michael Cohen sees the latest PR “offensive” as a way to buy more time for the war), and eventually come home in tribute, for nothing more than creating a space for us to leave with a shred of pride intact.

Then again, WikiLeaks has further exposed Petraeus’s weak hand. We can only hope the recent revelations will serve as a caution against cheap fixes and what Walt calls “historical amnesia.” If anything, WikiLeaks has thrown up a bulwark of truth that even this giant Mad Man cannot straddle for long.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.