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August 3, 2005

The Selling of Brand Kurdistan


by Bill Berkowitz

As chaos continues across much of Iraq, the governing authority is coming to yet another crossroads.

Inside the Green Zone – the location of the U.S. Embassy and major Iraqi government offices – officials are struggling to forge an acceptable constitution by the August deadline. Outside the relative safety of that enclave, the insurgency continues apace as demonstrated by daily suicide bombings and civilian casualties.

While the Shi'ite leaders of the government are negotiating deals and solidifying ties with Iran, and the Sunnis remain mostly disaffected from the political process, the Kurds appear to have mastered a dual strategy of participating in government decisions while at the same time, taking matters regarding their future into their own hands.

The generally efficient, if questionable, electoral process not only turned out large numbers of voters, but it also allowed Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, to be selected as the country's president, insuring close participation by the Kurds in all important government deliberations.

In a parallel strategic track, however, the Kurdish Regional Government appears to be keeping its options open, recently hiring Russo Marsh & Rogers (RM&R) – a Sacramento, Calif.-based public relations firm with close ties to the Republican Party – to promote its interests.

Many political observers believe that the future of Iraq may see a full-blown civil war or possible partition. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh recently wrote in The New Yorker magazine that a United Nations official involved in the elections told him: "The election was not an election but a referendum on ethnic and religious identity. For the Kurds, voting was about self-determination."

"Our job" with the Kurds, RM&R's Joe Wierzbicki told IPS, "is to carry out a public relations campaign that will thank the American people for supporting the war in Iraq, and encourage Americans to visit and invest in the Kurdish region."

The project has not yet gotten underway and it is unclear how long the contract will actually run. "It's a short-term thing because they don't know how long the public relations campaign might go," Wierzbicki said.

RM&R took on this work, he said, because "of all the different groups in Iraq that have a vision for the future, the vision of the Kurds is closest to ours. It's important to recognize that the Kurds are not hostile to the West."

In addition, "their vision, belief system and values – they've had a democratic system in place for a while – parallel ours."

No doubt, it's "a very messy situation over there and the country is trying to figure out its future. The Kurds would like the rest of country to look at the Kurdish region and see it as a model for the rest of the country."

Wierzbicki quickly added that they are definitely "not advocating an independent Kurdistan."

The "war on terror" has been good to Russo Marsh & Rogers. Shortly after 9/11, it supported a brief, but nasty, campaign to unseat California Rep. Barbara Lee, after she had cast the lone Congressional vote against giving President George W. Bush a blank check to pursue his war on international terrorism.

Lee, who received numerous death threats and received special condemnatory attention from David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture, was challenged by former Green Party State Assemblywoman Audie Bock.

With the support of RM&R, Bock came out of the box with the campaign slogan, "It's OK to Love America." Completely misjudging the electorate in the Ninth District, a district that was represented by Ron Dellums, the longtime voice for anti-militarism and social justice, Bock's campaign came to a crashing halt in short order.

Before Russo Marsh & Rogers finalized the deal with the Kurds, it had other business in Iraq to attend to: handling the publicity for the "Truth Tour," a seven-day carefully calibrated trip to Iraq by a group of conservative radio talk-show hosts that was intended to spread the "good news" about what is happening on the ground.

The tour was organized by Move America Forward (MAF), an organization that, according to the Washington Post, owes much of its existence to the good offices of Russo Marsh & Rogers. The Office of Media Outreach, a taxpayer-funded publicity arm of the Department of Defense, also sponsored the tour.

Move America Forward describes itself as "a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving our American heritage of freedom and liberty."

Its Web site pointed out that the purpose of the "Truth Tour" was "to report the good news on Operation Iraqi Freedom you're not hearing from the old line news media....to get the news straight from our troops serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, including the positive developments and successes they are achieving."

Wierzbicki said that from "the very beginning," MAF was the project of Howard Kaloogian, a former California State Assemblyman, and Melanie Morgan, the co-host of a morning show on KSFO-AM in San Francisco, and that Sal Russo, the founder of Russo Marsh & Rogers, "helped set it in motion."

Wierzbicki allowed that RM&R has done "all of the [group's] public relations stuff, press releases, and radio and television ads that have been aired to date."

Move America Forward is currently soliciting contributions to run an advertising campaign called "Tortured Words," a commercial aimed at countering Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin's recent criticism of the conditions at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba. MAF intends to run the ads on "major broadcast affiliates (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox) throughout Senator Durbin's home state of Illinois."

In June 2004, eager to discredit Michael Moore's award-winning documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 before it hit the movie theaters, Russo Marsh & Rogers collaborated with MAF to lead a campaign that urged its supporters to "Stop Michael Moore" by taking "action against the release of his anti-American movie Fahrenheit 9/11."

Russo Marsh & Rogers' Web site claims that, "When it comes to winning elections, few firms can match [its] success."

By its own accounts, its record is impressive. It maintains that it devised the campaign strategy that allowed George Pataki, "a little known State Senator" from Peekskill, New York to defeat New York's Governor Mario Cuomo.

RM&R also "was hired by the California Republican Party to help salvage a sagging campaign to pass Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative [and] in the weeks leading up to Election Day [it] produced an advertising campaign which saved the initiative."

RM&R's Wierzbicki was circumspect about exactly which issues his firm would be handling. But according to O'Dwyer's PR Daily, one of the chief goals of Kurdish leaders is "the return of Kirkuk," an oil-rich northern Iraqi city populated by Kurdish and Turkmen people.

The struggle over Kirkuk could precipitate a major conflict within Iraq. The public relations campaign's launch date could come as soon as later this summer or could be put off until the fall, Wierzbicki said, and the campaign will would likely feature television and print advertisements.

 

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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column ”Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories, and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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