General Petraeus and the 'Information War'

l gillette General Petraeus and the 'Information War'Jamie Tarabay, the former Baghdad Bureau Chief for NPR, was stationed in Iraq in the early months of 2007 when General David Petraeus arrived to take over command of the U.S. forces there.

In the weeks and months to come, like many of her professional colleagues in the war zone, she eventually accompanied Mr. Petraeus on a number of walk-along interviews as he strolled through the streets of the occupied city.

“He does the same thing every time,” Ms. Tarabay recently told the Observer. “When he goes to a market area, the first thing he does is that he takes off his helmet and puts his soft cap on. There are a set number of things he does. He buys bananas, and he buys tea. If his aide has a soccer ball, he’ll give the kids the soccer ball. He likes to talk to reporters as he’s walking through the street. He doesn’t like being filmed in front of blown-up buildings.”

“He’s very aware,” she added. “He knows how to play the media.”

In his new book, War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, (which the Observer reviewed this week), Richard Engel of NBC News puts it a slightly different way.

“Petraeus understood how to use the media,” writes Mr. Engel. “He could boil down his thoughts to fifteen-second sound bytes, and always tracked the camera during interviews … He had what actors call ‘camera awareness.’”

According to Mr. Engel, it was a drastic change from Mr. Petraeus’ predecessor, General George Casey, who led the U.S. forces in Iraq from June 2004 to February 2007.

“Casey had no camera or media awareness at all,” writes Mr. Engel. “Most reporters were completely shut out…When General Petraeus took command in February 2007, nearly every reporter, including journalists from tiny foreign television stations and even American college newspapers, could be guaranteed an on-the-record interview within a few days.”

Some sixteen months later, a number of the seasoned TV reporters in Baghdad told the Observer that they continue to appreciate Mr. Petraeus’ style of media engagement—i.e. less press conferences, more personal access, increased transparency, and the occasional banana in the market place.

“I’d say it’s night and day compared to under Casey,” said Terry McCarthy of ABC News. “Petraeus came in and he made it very clear that he wanted the media to see what was going on in Iraq.”

“Not only is Petraeus quite accessible to the media, but he’s managed to convey down the line to his colonels and captains that it’s okay to talk to the media,” added Mr. McCarthy. “Under Casey, they were really trying to spin us. In Petraeus’ case, if it’s a bad day, he’ll say ‘it’s been a bad day.’”

“Petraeus is really well organized,” said Courtney Kealy, a correspondent for Fox News in Baghdad. “He really wanted to engage the press with the surge. They made sure we were able to move around with them and get on embeds and see how it was working with our own eyes–which is the most important thing, rather than just give us press conferences.”

“His administration is very pro-engagement,” NBC’s Mr. Engel told the Observer. “Part of it is that they have a good story to tell.”

“I find the command of General Petraeus to be much more media savvy than his predecessors,” said Michael Ware of CNN. “That could be said of their approach to the conflict in general. Their awareness of and inherent understanding of the requirements of counter insurgency lends itself by its very definition to a much more accessible approach to the media. That’s not to say that the military does not continue to obfuscate, blur the lines, and to ignore certain realities.”

“General Petraeus has a relatively refreshing approach towards the media,” added Mr. Ware. “But by no stretch of imagination is it accommodating, nor simple. There is still somewhat of an adversarial nature by definition, because you’re dealing with the military. It’s almost ingrained to have distaste for the media. There has been an abject failure by the U.S. mission from the beginning of this war to fight a real information war. In many ways, in insurgencies, that’s where the wars are won or lost–both here in the conflict and back home.”