It was about this time of year in 2002, in the halcyon days of the Bush Administration, that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card offered a little political marketing advice to the world. In explaining why the Administration had not launched its “case” against Iraq (and for a future invasion) the previous month, he told a New York Times reporter, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
It’s a piece of simple business wisdom, and when it comes to manipulating the public, the Bush Administration is still sticking to it. The corollary, which Card didn’t mention, is: Do your market research and testing in the dog-bites-man news months of July and August. And that’s just what the Bush Administration did in the run-up to what will certainly be its victorious battle with congressional opponents to extend its surge plan into next spring and its occupation of Iraq into the distant future. (As present White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten said in a meeting with the USA Today editorial board last week, he doesn’t think “any ‘realistic observer’ can believe that ‘all or even most of the American troop presence’ will be out of Iraq by the end of Bush’s presidency.”
The core marketing decision was, of course, finding the right spokesman for the product. As Robert Draper, author of the new book Dead Certain, reported recently, the President was “fully aware of his standing in opinion polls” and so, earlier this year, decided that “his top commander in Iraq, General David H. Petraeus, would perhaps do a better job selling progress to the American people than he could.” As Bush put it, “”I’ve been here too long. Every time I start painting a rosy picture, it gets criticized and then it doesn’t make it on the news.” Indeed.
So launching “Brand Petraeus” and providing him with some upbeat Iraqi news (Sunnis in al-Anbar Province ally with US) and numbers (violence down in August) were the two necessities of the summer. In July, the celebrity surge general, who had already shown a decided knack on earlier tours of Iraq for wowing the media, was loosed. Petraeus, in turn, loosed all his top commanders to enter vociferously into what previously would have been a civilian debate over US policy and the issue of “withdrawal.” This campaign, by the way, represents a significant chiseling away at traditional prohibitions on US military figures entering the American political arena while in uniform.
Like any top-notch PR outfit, the Administration also put various toes in the water in August and wiggled them vigorously–including offering rousing presidential speeches and radio addresses, especially a “Vietnam speech” to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. At the same time, an allied $15 million, five-week ad campaign was launched by a new conservative activist group, Freedom’s Watch, led by former White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer. The ads, “featuring military veterans,” were aimed directly at congressional opposition to the President’s surge strategy. In the meantime, key pundits and experts like Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution (who helps produce that organization’s anodyne, New York Times-published tabulation of numbers from Iraq) and former invasion enthusiast Kenneth Pollack (both of whom re-billed themselves as “critics”), not to speak of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and others, arrived in Iraq. There, they were given well-organized, well-scripted, Green Zone-style Pentagon-led tours and sent back home to write Petraeus-style news releases about modest, but upbeat, “progress.”