BOB GARFIELD: Saudi Arabia isn't the only country buying the services of a Washington PR firm. America's propaganda war is led by the Rendon Group. John Rendon started out as a Democratic political consultant working on elections abroad, but since the first Bush administration Rendon's PR campaigns have been at the front lines of the Panama Invasion, the Gulf War and Kosovo. So Pentagon officials didn't have to think hard when considering whom to ask for assistance in Afghanistan. Joining us now is Franklin Foer whose profile of Rendon appears in the May 20 issue of The New Republic. Frank, welcome to OTM.
FRANKLIN FOER: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: So when John Rendon shows up and says here's what I can do for you-- what can he do for us?
FRANKLIN FOER: He's mainly applying all the modern techniques of American political campaigns: focus groups, polling, TV advertising, rapid response. He actually produces ads for broadcast in places like Indonesia that try to put the findings of his focus groups and polls into action. In addition to all that work, he's encouraged the government to take a posture where it's competing quite vigorously to win the news cycle. They were scheduling American officials on television broadcasts on Al Jazeera and other networks throughout the Muslim world. So he is actually shaping the message.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there is one point when -- after the Gulf War -- part of his job involved radio broadcasts, but that didn't go very well.
FRANKLIN FOER:It didn't. He was put in charge of producing material for two radio stations that were beaming information into Iraq. This is where I begin to question perhaps his ability to negotiate the complexities of the Muslim world, because the scripts for these broadcasts were produced by 20-somethings in Washington who'd been veterans of typically democratic party politics and not terribly keyed into the nuances of the Middle East. These scripts which were then recorded in a studio in Boston were actually recorded by guys with Jordanian and Egyptian accents that weren't terribly comprehensible to Iraqis. Coupled with this, the messages that they were reading weren't terribly effective. Just to give you an example, one of the things that the Rendon scripts tended to harp on was the gassing of the Kurds. In terms of persuading Americans of the evils of Saddam, talking about the gassing of the Kurds is an incredibly effective talking point. But the sad truth is, is that most Iraqis didn't care about the gassing of the Kurds or were actively supportive of it. So as a device of stirring up resentment towards Saddam, I can't say that it was terribly effective.
BOB GARFIELD: What you've described in your piece is reminiscent of the work of political operatives like Michael Deaver--
FRANKLIN FOER: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: -- who made an art form of mastering the news cycles. Is Rendon a, a Deaver character?
FRANKLIN FOER:He's very much in that mold. You've got to control stories as they develop. You've got to beat the other guy to the punch. You can't let any points go unanswered. And that's the mind set that a political consultant like Rendon brings to this sort of operation.
BOB GARFIELD:If your goal is to influence the domestic debate, those tactics would probably serve you very well, but your article suggests that if your goal is to change the hearts and minds of the Arab and Islamic worlds, it's a silly and superficial approach.
FRANKLIN FOER: That's right. I mean just consider so many of the stories that have been in the ether since September 11th -- this idea that Mossad was somehow responsible for the World Trade Center collapse or that Purim pastry for the Jewish holiday was made out of the blood of adolescent Muslims. These stories are ridiculous, and people who believe them aren't going to believe you if you simply say no, no it's not true that Mossad was responsible. We have evidence that Al Qaeda was responsible. You've got to change a world view -- not just win a news cycle.
BOB GARFIELD: How is Rendon held accountable for success or failure? He, he continues to get work.
FRANKLIN FOER:There are many ways in which Rendon is a very savvy politician, and one of them is that he has compiled a network in the Pentagon and White House. He has a very close relationship to Carl Rove. The other part of it is that this sort of activity is very hard to judge in a quantifiable way, and because the Defense Department and CIA have been so desperate for anybody who can fill the void that they've faced since the end of the Cold War, they've just stuck with the guy.
BOB GARFIELD: Frank, thanks very much.
FRANKLIN FOER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Franklin Foer is a staff writer for The New Republic. [MUSIC]