Television shifts focus of U.S. foreign policy

February 11, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The bloody scenes have appeared on television news broadcasts all week: bodies ripped apart, a chaotic scramble to rescue badly wounded victims, cries of agony, wrenching grief. All that was missing was the stench of death.

Hours after Saturday's shelling attack on Sarajevo, which killed 68, a war that had lost its capacity to outrage leaped to the top of the diplomatic agenda in Washington and Europe.

The result was Wednesday's NATO ultimatum to Bosnian Serbs, warning of air strikes if they don't withdraw heavy weaponry from around Sarajevo.

It's another example of "the CNN effect," the power of televised horror to jolt the public, excite legislators and galvanize policy-makers to act.

The shelling was hardly the worst atrocity in a conflict that has killed 200,000 and uprooted millions. But TV footage of the massacre was able to shift foreign policy where hundreds of pages of war-crimes evidence had failed.

Many people who have followed Bosnia's agony welcome television's impact, but the episode raises troubling issues concerning how foreign policy is made. What is on the screen becomes important, and what is not rarely becomes a crisis.

"When the media puts something under a microscope, it can't be ignored. You don't have to act, but you do have to respond," said Margaret D. Tutwiler, the State Department spokesman under President George Bush. "It's not easy," she said, for an administration to avoid being driven by what appears on the screen.

Historically, foreign policy was made and negotiated largely in secret by pin-striped diplomats who often treated public opinion with contempt.

In television's first generation, global coverage was sparse and often delayed. But in the satellite age, world troubles are exposed to riveted viewers, often within hours and sometimes live.

After television cameras captured the heartbreaking images of thousands of starving Somalis, the United States decided to send troops there on an unusual humanitarian mission.

"There's no denying it had an impact -- on public opinion and on policy-makers," said Walter Kansteiner, a National Security Council staff member in the Bush administration and an Africa expert.

The humanitarian mission enjoyed broad public support until October, when the televised spectacle of a dead American flier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu produced public revulsion and congressional outrage. Soon after, the United States reversed its policy toward Somalia and began taking a more critical look at peacekeeping operations.

The same thing happened at the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when the Bush administration changed U.S. policy after television pictures showed thousands of Kurds fleeing from Iraqi attack helicopters.

The United States decided to airlift supplies and set up a no-fly zone to protect Kurdish areas, a reversal of a previous stand against getting involved in Iraq's domestic affairs.

President Clinton's foreign policy advisers have made a conscious effort not to be pushed into what Secretary of Defense William J. Perry called "spasmodic responses" to televised carnage.

In congressional testimony last year, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said that "television images cannot be the North Star of U.S. foreign policy."

And Anthony Lake, the president's national security adviser, said last year that, "Public pressure for our humanitarian engagement increasingly may be driven by televised images, which can depend in turn on such considerations as where CNN decides to send its camera crews.

"But we must bring other considerations to bear as well," he said, including cost, feasibility, whether the United States can effect lasting improvement and the willingness of others to pitch in.

In practice, that is hard to achieve.

But Saturday's carnage "created urgency," a senior aide said. "Television pictures have galvanized our determination to try to step up the U.S. role. Absent that attack, it would have taken longer," the aide said.

ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings acknowledged that the television footage had a powerful impact. He added, however, that "government institutions set the agenda" on foreign policy and that "we massage it. Sometimes we influence it in large measure, sometimes not at all."

This kind of impact wouldn't be a problem if the media were able to give comparable weight to every world trouble spot, but they can't. One reason is logistics, another that some of the world's most oppressive regimes won't let the Western media in.

"The searchlight of media coverage is not the even and regular sweep of a lighthouse," British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said in September. "It is patchy, dwelling on some rocks only briefly, on others at length. We see little on our screens of the tragedies in Liberia, in Angola and in Sudan," he said, adding that "the public debate is run not by events, but by coverage of events."

The public reaction, or fear of it, that often drives politicians to act is hard to assess immediately after something like Saturday's massacre in Sarajevo.

A USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll published yesterday showed Americans favoring air strikes against Serbs, 48 percent to 43 percent, while an ABC poll showed a larger, 57 percent to 37 percent margin.

"People are drawn in for short periods," says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. 22 Then "they go back to more normal pursuits."

Far from just being prey to TV images, presidents have enormous power to marshal media attention and public opinion in support of foreign intervention. One of the frustrations of pro-Bosnian activists is that Bill Clinton has seldom chosen to exercise it.

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