Tough Sell: Fighting the Media War in Iraq

  • Published

Tough Sell: Fighting the Media War in Iraq by Tom Basile. University of Nebraska Press, 2017, 320 pp.

Tough Sell: Fighting the Media War in Iraq by Tom Basile is an analytical history written in the first person by a former senior press advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad, Iraq, 2003–2004. This book does exactly what the title suggests. It addresses the question of the complexity of gaining media support during the early stages of the Iraq War, primarily focusing on the 2003–2004 period. The author convincingly argues that in the contemporary information age, determining the appropriate military means in order to achieve one’s objectives only represents part of the task at hand. In the present context, policy makers must also secure public and media support across the time frame of the campaign and beyond. Consequently, public support is not characterized by permanency. Rather, it changes over time and requires constant effort and a clear strategy to be sustained. Therefore, in order to win the media war, policy makers require not only a strong strategy but also a vision and flexibility when confronted with unexpected events in the national, international, and operational environment. Although the author addresses the complexity of conducting and justifying warfare under the conditions of the 24/7 media cycle, he also touches upon the universal dilemma of a successful strategy: the easiest way to lose a war is to lose it at home. Indeed, the author comprehensively illustrates how and why the media war was lost in the case of Iraq. As an active participant in the events described, he provides firsthand information regarding the successes and errors of the CPA in Baghdad, comparing its achievements with the media’s reporting.

In addition to fulfilling its intended purpose, this book makes a substantial contribution to studies of contemporary warfare because it provides practical illustration of the disjuncture between the public, policy makers, and the military on the ground. Certainly, whereas conventionally the emphasis is placed on dysfunctional civil-military relations and the widening gap in understanding related to operating in different environments, Basile shares the institutional side of the story. In the chapter “Disconnected,” he argues that the media’s desire for flashy images and fast news is not the only facet to blame. He uses evidence of appointments and projects that were supposed to bring to the public the reality of the CPA’s actions on the ground in Baghdad by the people involved. For instance, Tory Clarke vacated the post of assistant secretary for public affairs for the Department of Defense in June 2003 and was not replaced until April 2006 (p. 217). Hence, no one was available to serve as a mediator between policy makers and the media. Another example was the reluctance of the Bush administration to support initiatives such as collecting stories and shooting videos by the Broadcast Operations Detachment (BOD) teams.

Basile’s inside analysis of conflicting interests in the domestic political environment and the lack of representation of events on the ground unveils a different side to civil-military relations. The majority of scientific research on civil-military relations explores images of the military in liberal democracies, the degree of civil control and consequent public perception of warfare, and exaggerated expectations of bloodless and casualty-free conflicts (post-heroic warfare). Thus, seldom are the limitations of military actions in accordance with posed political objectives, strategic requirements, and rules of engagement addressed. In other words, public opinion in liberal democracies tends to concentrate on the images shown by media. Very few people understand that militaries act under strict rules and that they can only do so much as their orders, dictated by a strategy that aims to fulfill policy, allow.

Moreover, if there is no political will to continue one’s presence in the country and spend money on stabilization operations and long-term peace, then recovery cannot be expected. The absence of stability cannot be blamed on the militaries involved in the operation. Basile makes an excellent case to prove this argument. He illustrates that in spite of negative publicity and certain mistakes, the CPA managed to establish a functioning infrastructure and the mechanisms required for a democratic society in Iraq. In this regard, Basile is not oblivious to the challenges of the country’s long-term sustainability. However, crucially he highlights what people on the ground were doing despite the vagueness of the political signals in Washington at the time. Basile’s thorough account of CPA actions also reveals another distinctive feature of conducting wars in the contemporary information age. Today, tactical actions (referring to soldiers’ actions on the ground or words spoken in an interview) can have tremendous implications at the strategic level and as an extension of domestic public opinion and support for operations. 


He also cogently argues that by deciding to restrict comments on Iraq to top political officials, the Bush administration failed to preserve its credibility in the eyes of the people they were supposed to represent, as well as the global community. Moreover, he makes an important point that the opposition should not dictate one’s media strategy; rather, a good policy maker should have a media strategy in place before publicizing any decision, and this should be adjusted in response to changes in the internal and global environment. From a political perspective, he makes a strong case for the necessity of readiness and action to back up one’s policy.

From a strictly military and strategic perspective, the argument might be strengthened by exemplifying the existence of a direct relationship between the clarity of policy, strategy, and military actions on the ground. When policy is vague and fluctuates between finding weapons of mass destruction (WMD), regime change and building democracy, it becomes difficult for militaries to meet public expectations, and this can be either exaggerated or blurred by conflicting political messages. This book is a must-read for any student of military academies, anyone studying politics and governance, or a member of the wider public interested in civil-military relations and the media’s impact on public opinion. I have eagerly recommended this book to my students.


Dr Viktoriya Fedorchak

Lecturer in Military History

Centre for Military History & Strategic Studies

Department of History

Maynooth University

Republic of Ireland

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."