So launching “Brand Petraeus” and providing him with some upbeat Iraqi news (Sunnis in al-Anbar Province ally with U.S.) 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 U.S. policy and the issue of “withdrawal.” This campaign, by the way, represents a significant chiseling away at traditional prohibitions on U.S. 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.”
Next, of course, came the full-scale September launching of the campaign. This involved a “dramatic” presidential secret exit from the White House and secret Air Force One flight to al-Asad Airbase in Iraq’s isolated western desert, one of our giant “enduring” bases (whose imposing nature U.S. reporters tend to be oblivious to, even when reporting from them). With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and hand-picked reporters along, Bush performed what was, as PressThink’s Jay Rosen has written, not just a photo-op, but “a propaganda mission that required the press to complete the mission for him.” And so they did, as he met Brand Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, along with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and various Sunni tribal Sheikhs from al-Anbar province — with smiles and handshakes all around.