Making sure the world hears the American side

U.S. tries to counter Taliban propaganda

War On Terrorism

The Nation

November 02, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Seeking to better explain its anti-terror campaign both to jittery Americans and to skeptics abroad, the White House is launching a public relations drive in which President Bush will address the nation and play host to several key foreign leaders next week.

The president's speech will come at a time when many Americans are feeling confused and anxious about the seriousness of an anthrax scare and the goals of the military campaign in Afghanistan.

The administration is also redoubling its effort to make sure that another audience - citizens of the Islamic world - receives a clear and coordinated message from the United States and its allies to justify the military action.

In particular, U.S. officials said they are increasingly concerned that false assertions by the Taliban - such as exaggerated estimates, according to the United States, of Afghan civilians killed by airstrikes - are spreading in Muslim countries. The ability of nations such as Pakistan to remain part of an international coalition against terror depends largely on keeping their citizens' opposition to the U.S. airstrikes under control.

To try to thwart Taliban efforts to control information, U.S. and British officials established round-the-clock "Coalition Information Centers" in Washington, London and Islamabad, Pakistan, this week.

Diplomats in those cities, officials said, will be deployed quickly to do interviews or organize news conferences to immediately rebut allegations from the Taliban or from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

"The danger is that an impression will be left over time in the Arab world, if these baseless charges are left unanswered," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director.

"Pakistan is 10 hours ahead of us, and many of the ridiculous charges they attempt to make are done while people [in Washington] are sleeping. When you see the kind of information being spewed by the Taliban, it's important for us to have a coordinated response."

But the challenge of managing the flow of information to Americans appears to be as daunting as the mission abroad. Besides having to explain to Americans each day the progress of the military action in Afghanistan, the administration has had to simultaneously handle the anthrax scare.

After two weeks in which American officials appeared at times confused, or delivered conflicting messages, White House aides say the burden is on Bush next week to try to reassure the nation and help Americans sift through the blizzard of fast-moving developments.

"The velocity, and the volume of the information on all fronts, is just unparalleled," said Mary Matalin, a senior adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. "And there are various junctures when you have to step back and put it in context. You just can't take it all in."

White House officials would not discuss yesterday where or when Bush would deliver his address to the nation. But the Associated Press reported last night that it would take place Thursday at an undisclosed site outside Washington.

Next week, Bush will also meet in Washington with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, President Jacques Chirac of France and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India, among other foreign leaders. The president will also deliver remarks, via satellite, to leaders of Central European states gathered in Warsaw, Poland.

In his messages to European leaders, said the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, Bush would try to "define the nature of the global response to terrorism."

When Bush and Blair met in Washington several weeks ago, officials said, they discussed their concerns about the Taliban's ability to reach the public in Muslim countries with false information.

White House officials said the stepped-up efforts to manage the news that reaches the Islamic world have longer-term purposes as well. Those goals include sketching a more positive image of American culture in the eyes of Muslims, many of whom view the United States as a symbol of excess and international arrogance.

In particular, the administration wants to highlight the efforts the United States is making to supply humanitarian aid to Afghan civilians.

U.S. officials have stopped short of saying they have been losing a propaganda war. But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in testimony to Congress last week, said that "we do have a problem with the Arab street, in terms of getting them to have a better understanding of what we're trying to do."

In particular, Powell said, he hopes the United States can convey to Muslims "the kind of value system that this country has and represents to the rest of the world."

"We've just been asleep at the switch at this one for many years," Powell said. "Now, we have to work on it."

The fight for control over propaganda is a component of any conflict that can never be ignored, say foreign policy specialists, some of whom observed that the Bush administration was getting involved late in the game.

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