A new phase in the P.R. war

SUN JOURNAL

Response: As the war in Afghanistan recedes from the front page, questions are raised about the necessity of maintaining the White House operation to shape media spin on the conflict.

January 23, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the war room where the White House works to mold public opinion in the Arab world, all eyes are turned to March 21. It is the first day of the new school year in Afghanistan, and it promises to be a media event.

Will President Bush urge American students to send school supplies and adopt Afghan pen pals?

How many headlines can be generated about the arrival of girls in school after the fall of the Taliban, which prohibited their education?

Can any U.S. officials get on TV to discuss the image of America among young Muslims?

These are the kinds of ideas the war room must be ready to turn into action - ideas that lately center less on such wartime matters as the hunt for Osama bin Laden and more on improving the perception of America in the rest of the world.

The war room is a different place now that the Afghan fight is receding from the nation's front pages. Gone are the ringing phones, the buzzing aides, the dozen visits a day by senior Bush advisers, the 2:30 a.m. conference calls with Islamabad, the exhaustive chase of the 24-hour news cycle.

Now the operation is shifting to something more strategic: figuring out how to win allies in the fight against terrorism as the war enters new fronts.

Yet as it takes on a new mission, the war room is confronting a battle of its own, as the White House considers closing the operation. With the Taliban removed from power and the conflict appearing to die down, critics wonder if such a large-scale war room will have a reason to exist much longer.

Why not, they ask, simply shift its responsibilities to the State Department or some other agency?

But some administration aides contend that the United States cannot afford to lose the public relations war, and they argue that a continuing White House rapid-response team ought to be in place.

"When children grow up hating America, we clearly have not done our job," says Jim Wilkinson, a White House communications aide who runs the war room's daily operations. He maintains that if the administration dissolves the war room, it must find a strong substitute.

"There needs to be some sort of permanent entity to better communicate America to all corners of the globe," Wilkinson says.

But the wartime P.R. machine could sputter without a war to justify it, and some observers say it will fall off the administration's radar screen as soon as the Afghan conflict draws to a close.

"Shaping public opinion is very important, but it's a very unsexy part of American foreign policy, and there will always be a temptation to short-change it," says Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "People will always be tempted to put this on the back burner when there doesn't seem to be an immediate problem. It doesn't yield dramatic payoffs - it's not like sending in the U.S. Air Force."

On a recent morning, the war room appeared subdued. The TV sets were on mute, and the 20 aides - plucked from the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies - were away from their desks or tapping quietly at their computers. Staffers acknowledge that the pace has slowed.

In busier times, the place resembled an air-traffic control center. Wilkinson, a 31-year-old Texan, who studies Arabic at night and paces news deadlines by the digital watch that glows green on his wrist, makes sure the administration's message stays consistent.

Every morning, Wilkinson sits in on a 9:30 conference call to coordinate the day's message with his supervisor - Karen Hughes, President Bush's senior adviser - as well as Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher and others. Then the staff gets to work. One aide supplies cable news networks with facts for their 24-hour tickers, another books U.S. officials on Arab TV, another sends freshly written op-ed articles to U.S. ambassadors to submit under their names.

The war room sits in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's Indian Treaty Room, a sumptuous space with wooden angels soaring from the corners and stars embedded in the ceiling. Memories of Sept. 11 are everywhere in the 19th-century hall - the F.D.N.Y. jacket on a chair, the "Let's Roll" bumper sticker on a desk, the Taliban turban on the window sill.

This is one of three war rooms that White House officials established with their British counterparts in November - the other two are in London and Islamabad - so the allies could react to the day's events from dawn in Afghanistan and to dusk in Washington. Four clocks on the walls tell time around the globe. A world map glows in the places where the sun is up.

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