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Saturday, May 23, 2015
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Published: Saturday, 5/25/2002

The public relations war

Sometimes it seems as if the Bush Administration believes the war on terrorism is as much a public relations problem as anything. How many times have we been told that the radical Islamists would like Americans if only they got to know us better?

The Defense Department's fledgling Office of Strategic Influence was abruptly closed in February after a public outcry and concern among Pentagon insiders that government image-makers would cross the line into propaganda and purposeful misinformation.

That flap was of little consequence, however, compared with the history of several presidents' reliance on a single PR consultant who has been on and off the payroll of our government and those of various allies for more than a decade. His name is John W. Rendon, and he's had a part in stage-managing U.S. foreign policy from Panama in 1989 to Afghanistan in 2002.

A self-described "information warrior" and "perception manager," he has harnessed the power of the modern press release to create positive images and massage public opinion around the world.

An example: As a consultant to the government of Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War, Mr. Rendon was responsible for supplying all those little American flags the Kuwaitis were waving as they were liberated by allied troops.

Few Americans would recognize Mr. Rendon - he's not a government official - but published reports indicate the government paid him at least $7.5 million to help formulate the administration's message of the day on terrorism for months following the Sept. 11 attacks. His hallmark is responding quickly to deflect and defuse sticky issues, like Taliban reports of alleged U.S. atrocities at Mazar-e-Sharif.

While there's a place for people like John Rendon in government, the danger of treating foreign policy situations as public relations problems to be managed is that the government's original objective is often obscured. That's assuming, of course, that those running the government have a clear objective.

It wasn't all that long ago, for example, that President Bush professed no interest in the arduous task of nation building. Now, as has become clear with Afghanistan, the United States has no choice.

In the end, coherent and clearly stated objectives, and the will to enforce them consistently, make better foreign policy tools than even a swarm of PR operatives. Propaganda has limited value in today's global village.


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