`Operation Wartime Spin' annoys non-Americans

November 19, 2001|By Tom Mudd

DUBLIN - In Madrid the other day, a woman from the Philippines looked slyly at me over a plate of cured ham. Then she hit me with her question.

"Doesn't it embarrass you," she asked, "the way your government feels compelled to give these military actions such stupid names?"

The slice of ham in my mouth turned from delectable to dire. I swallowed hard, chasing it down with some red wine that bypassed my palate completely.

The answer to her question was "yes."

Operation Enduring Freedom is embarrassing to this American living abroad, even if the name isn't as insensitive as Operation Infinite Justice. And if I had been living here at the time, I would also have cringed at Operation Desert Shield, and again when it metamorphosed into Operation Desert Storm.

Don't even get me started on Operation Just Cause.

But I didn't say that to this woman. In fact, I did what politicians have been doing to me for years: I talked around the question.

I generally support what the U.S. government is doing in Afghanistan. And I try not to criticize my country to non-Americans, even if the setting is as casual as this lunch in Madrid.

Her point, though, was hard to refute. These names our military and political leaders give such operations never fail to strike a false note among people outside the United States. They manage to be simultaneously cynical and sanctimonious, and they encourage the widespread belief I've encountered abroad that we Americans are just so many dumb sheep who'll believe whatever the shepherds have to say.

From this distance, I've begun to understand what it is that so many non-Americans dislike about U.S. policies. While they respect American accomplishments and values, they resent like hell the smug self-righteousness our nation projects.

Most Europeans I know agree that the people of the United States have every right to be angry and to want to avenge the deaths of those people killed on Sept. 11. But they object to having that anger and desire for vengeance cloaked in spin.

At a time when America's friends want our country to be strong and resolute, it does us no good at all to have such obvious stage-managing of our actions.

In the current case, the stage-managing began in earnest during that embarrassing televised phone call President Bush made from the Oval Office to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani just days after the attacks.

With that phone call, and with the name given to the assault on Osama bin Laden and his allies, Mr. Bush and his spinners were aiming to project an image akin to that of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore in the Philippines.

But it didn't work. Not here, anyway.

Instead of resembling MacArthur, Mr. Bush came across looking like a figure from more recent American history: Mike Dukakis giving a nerdy thumbs-up from the hatch of a tank.

That image may not be too important right now, because support for the United States remains strong. But it won't always be so.

Weeks or months down the road, when the coalition begins to fray at the edges, it won't help the cause at all if our allies think we're running everything past the spin doctors and the focus groups first.

Instead of trying to ape Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bush would earn a lot more respect by the man who had the guts to fire MacArthur: Harry Truman. In this situation, the president would get more mileage out of Trumanesque plain speaking than he will out of Reaganesque spin - sort of like conducting "Operation Give 'Em Hell."

Tom Mudd, a Towson native, lives in a suburb of Dublin, where he is European bureau chief of IndustryWeek magazine.

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