U.S. must win battle of images

October 03, 2001|By Jamie F. Metzl

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has begun to make the important argument that military force is only one tool in America's campaign against global terrorism.

In addition to other non-military activities such as freezing assets and sharing intelligence, the United States and its allies must also wage an aggressive information campaign to promote our values and counter harmful opinions in parts of the Islamic world.

The power of symbols, images, and ideas is today often greater than that of hard military assets.

The terrorists attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon clearly understood this.

Their colleagues may well now be hoping that American bombs target Afghanistan so that the television images of such bombing will fuel resentment of American power in the Arab world.

To win our struggle, America must also win this battle of images.

First, we must take even greater steps to emanate respect for Muslims and for the Arab world to prevent the war on terrorism from being interpreted in that region as a Christian crusade against the Muslims. President Bush's remarks at an Islamic Center in Washington two weeks ago were an important first step in this process. Now we must do much more. To begin, every Arab-speaking diplomat should be asked to make this argument repeatedly to Arab populations and in the Arab media.

Second, we must do more to project America's perspectives into the region.

U.S. broadcast assets such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe should be given the finances and backing to dramatically increase their broadcasts to the Middle and Near East. Arab-Americans should be encouraged to use these outlets to tell America's positive story to their native populations.

Third, because populations in the Arab world are more likely to listen to and trust their domestic media, we must do everything we can to support more moderate and reliable news organizations in the Arab world, wherever they exist.

This effort will require extensive monitoring of indigenous broadcasts, some of which continue to incite local populations to violence. The full force of American diplomatic power should be brought to bear in cases where state-controlled media are broadcasting messages antithetical to our efforts.

Finally, the information-gathering activities of all our agencies operating in the fight against terrorism, including the Pentagon, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, should be coordinated to project a coherent message to the Arab world and beyond.

The Bush administration has a powerful tool at its disposal to carry out these tasks. Presidential Decision Directive 68 on International Public Information, signed by President Bill Clinton in April 1999, creates a high-level interagency international information coordination body chaired by the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy. This body should be convened immediately to coordinate our nation's information campaign against terrorism.

Terrorism is a 21st-century threat, and we must respond with 21st-century tools that recognize a new focus of global power. Information projection is America's strength. We must now use it to achieve our objectives.

Jamie F. Metzl, a former senior coordinator for international public information in the State Department and the National Security Council, is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an international affairs fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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