WASHINGTON - When historians look back on the United States war in Iraq, they will almost certainly be struck by how a small group of mainly neo-conservative analysts and activists outside the administration were able to shape the US media debate in ways that made the drive to war so much easier than it might have been.
Part of their success, of course, is attributable to their own close ties to the administration. Some, such as former Central Intelligence Agency chief James Woolsey, and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow Richard Perle, for example, used their access as members of the Defense Policy Board (DPB) to enhance their credibility as players with inside information.
And many of the same group could credit their polish and polemical skills with dominating the talk shows on television and radio and the opinion pages in the nation's major newspapers.
It also no doubt helped that most of the group had known each other for many years, often worked with the same organizations and think tanks, and subscribed to the same basic ideology that had a clear and consistent story line: Saddam Hussein is evil and dangerous; the US is good and benign; and if we don't get him first, he will try to kill us.
The simplicity and consistency of that message - however questionable the evidence to support it may turn out to be - were appealing in themselves, particularly to television, on which about 80 percent of the public relies for their international news.
But historians would be negligent if they ignored the day-to-day work of one person who, as much as anyone outside the administration, made their media ubiquity possible.
Meet Eleana Benador, the Peruvian-born publicist for Perle, Woolsey, Michael Ledeen, Frank Gaffney and a dozen other prominent neo-conservatives whose hawkish opinions proved very hard to avoid for anyone who watched news talk shows or read the op-ed pages of major newspapers over the past 20 months.
Also found among her client list are other major war-boosters, including former New York Times executive editor and now New York Daily News columnist, A M Rosenthal; Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer; the Council on Foreign Relations' resident imperialist, Max Boot; and Victor Davis Hanson, a blood-and-guts classicist and one of Vice President Dick Cheney's favorite dinner guests.
Aside from her success in getting her clients distributed all over the television dial at critical moments in the march to war, what is particularly remarkable about Benador is the speed with which she has built what is obviously a thriving business, based on 17 to 18-hour work days, the personal attention she gives to both her clients and her media contacts, and her conviction that what her clients say is true and right.
"In general, I do agree with their views," Benador told Inter Press Service during an interview this week in the plush lobby of what is Washington's only grand hotel in the European style, the Willard. "So when I represent them, I can really convince another person."
New York-based Benador Associates is less than two years old, but has a star-studded client roster of 38 people, most of them Middle East specialists. Benador estimates that she arranges for her clients each week between 15 and 30 interviews on US and foreign television. In the same period, she places an average of about five op-eds by them in the most influential newspapers, such as the Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. And none of that includes what she considers her main responsibility - to get her clients influential and, if possible, lucrative speaking engagements.
She downplays her achievements and importance, noting that media demand for prominent neo-conservatives was spurred "not because of Eleana Benador, but because of the long overdue need to address the threat of terrorism".
Benador was born in Lima, where she was crippled by polio while very young. At the age of seven she moved with her family to Paris, where she remained when they returned to Peru when she was 16. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris and the Catholic University in Lille and later studied and worked in Vienna and Geneva, where she met her husband, a Swiss art dealer. After nine years of raising their now 14-year-old son, Benador returned to work, dividing her time between "anti-terrorism" and art history.
She then joined the Middle East Forum (MEF), a Philadelphia-based think tank headed by neo-con Daniel Pipes, whose recent nomination by President George W Bush to the board of the US Institute for Peace has stalled as a result of strong criticism from Arab-American, Muslim and civil-rights groups, who accuse him of inciting hatred against Muslims.
Benador left the MEF in October 2001 to create Benador Associates, and credits Woolsey and Rosenthal, in particular, with helping her get started. "Woolsey really opened his doors for his other friends," she said. Woolsey has long been close to Perle, who has his own network of neo-cons based at AEI, including Ledeen, Hillel Fradkin, Michael Rubin, Meyrav Wurmser and Laurie Mylroie, all of whom have been outspoken and influential hawks on Iraq. And all are Benador clients.
Her client list also includes a number of Muslims, such as Amir Taheri, Ismail Cem, Fereydoun Hoveyda, Tashbih Sayyed and Mansoor Ijaz, all of whom supported the war and have called for Bush to extend the "war on terrorism" to other Middle Eastern countries. Another prominent Muslim represented by Benador, Shaykh Kabbani, created an uproar in the Muslim community in 1999 by charging that most US mosques were preaching extremist views.
Benador also represents two controversial Iraqis - Kanan Makiya and Khidhir Hamza - associated with the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmad Chalabi, who has been strongly supported by neo-conservatives in the administration and the DPB. Hamza, a former nuclear scientist, has been especially controversial due to his repeated warnings in the media about Iraq's alleged reconstitution of a nuclear-weapons program. Hamza and Makiya, says Benador, are "really my most powerful voices right now".
The publicist says that she sees her work as "more of a mission than a business", a mission in which her Muslim clients play a key role. "I'm totally convinced that in our world to get peace we need to make peace with moderate Muslims," according to Benador. "If they are not our allies, we will never have peace. They are the ones who can defeat their own extremists, and they are the first victims of Muslim extremists. This is something I'm very firmly fighting for."
Nor are all her clients dyed-in-the-wool neo-cons. She also represents columnist Arnaud de Borchgrave, a right-winger who has opposed the neo-cons' Mideast policy as tilted too far toward Israeli interests.
Benador says that she is now trying to work more with companies that are investing in the Middle East and need up-to-date analysis of the situation there from her clients. She has also launched an effort to present programs on "anti-Americanism" on US university campuses using her clients as featured speakers.