Sharpening the words of war


Opinion: Critics say the United States has taken too long assembling an arsenal in the worldwide battle for public support.

November 08, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Five minutes after the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera aired a videotape in which Osama bin Laden accused the United States of waging war on Islam, retired U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross was on the air calling him a liar. Speaking live in fluent Arabic, the former ambassador to Syria appeared for more than an hour and a half, taking pains to describe bin Laden's statement as propaganda.

"Bin Laden engages in fabrications and exaggerations," Ross says. He describes his recent appearance on Al-Jazeera, which he made after rushing to that station's ninth-floor studio at Washington's National Press Building: "I was very careful that our statement was based on fact and took a very reasoned tone without the kind of bombast he engages in."

But during wartime, where does information end and propaganda begin? Just as no country would call its message "propaganda" - a word implying the use of half-truths to amass support and undermine the enemy - no country would enter a military action without launching its own public-relations battle to defend its goals. In war, words become weapons, too.

"Propaganda tends to have a nefarious feel to it, but propaganda is basically just using language and ideas to support your position," says Timothy Crawford, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Some of the best propaganda is bald-faced truth: Things that can't be denied," he says. "But there's a lot of room for play in propaganda, because there's always a lot of debate over what the facts mean."

To improve its public relations effort, and to get its side of the story out without being accused of spinning it, the State Department plans to unveil a new communications strategy tomorrow - one that will use coordinated messages by U.S. officials, and possibly celebrities, to reach a broad Muslim audience.

The effort is complex, since the United States must tweak its message for multiple audiences - its own people, its allies, its enemies. Perhaps hardest of all, it must win the "hearts and minds" of a vast Islamic public - with time differences and language barriers that make quick communication tough.

Recently, the White House activated a new war room, a 24-hour operation designed to reply to critics of the U.S. military action. The effort, with smaller offices in London and Pakistan, uses the rapid-response techniques of a political campaign to try to sway an Islamic audience.

Even so, some analysts call the United States too slow to strike in the information war.

"We're engaged right now in a conversation with ourselves," says James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group. "We don't hear what's being said, and what we say is not heard."

After the World Trade Center attacks, Zogby says, the United States was too leisurely in rebutting the rumor that 4,000 Jews stayed home that day and thereby saved their lives in an attack that was engineered by Israel.

"If you don't address issues in the gap, the gap grows," he says. "Why didn't we take out a paid newspaper ad with pictures of all the Jewish people who died in that attack? What about the Pakistanis and Arabs who were killed?"

Zogby says the U.S. government needs to diversify its media effort. While U.S. officials have focused heavily on Al-Jazeera, Zogby says, they have virtually ignored networks like the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., a major outlet that is all the more popular, he alleges, because it features lots of pretty women.

And Zogby believes the United States must enlist the help of international media stars who appeal to Muslims. "What about Muhammad Ali?" he says. "He'd be huge."

The House Committee on International Relations will hear testimony next week from Hollywood filmmakers and advertising executives on how America can win the battle for public sentiment against bin Laden and reverse what Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the panel, has called "the poisonous image of the United States."

On other fronts, the Council on Foreign Relations is assembling a list of suggestions for the White House from academics, former government officials and strategists on how the U.S. government can best promote itself abroad. Among them: conduct campaign-style polling to gauge public sympathies to help officials figure out where, when and how to deliver the U.S. message.

Of course, the government already is trying to generate sympathy - and fear - with words. Military broadcasts via C-130 aircraft over Afghanistan have included taped declarations such as, "It is not you, the honorable people of Afghanistan, who are targeted, but those who would oppress you, seek to bend you to their own will and make you their slaves." Another issues a threat: "Attention Taliban. You are condemned. Did you know that?"

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