Terror fight undercut by careless words

March 13, 2002|By Alan L. Isenberg

WASHINGTON -- For every military and humanitarian success since the campaign against terror began, there has been a communications failure of nearly equal proportions.

From President Bush's original reference to the war on terror as a "crusade" to the latest debacle of disinformation in the just-closed Office of Strategic Influence, it is clear that his administration is slipping, frequently and dangerously, in crafting and selling the words that define the war on terror to the eyes and ears of the world.

Yet the need to get this operation right on the first try is no less imperative than in a military strike.

Do Americans truly view this campaign as a mission to kill Arabs and proselytize Christianity? Of course not. But this is precisely the image evoked in Arab minds -- even those sympathetic to the American cause -- when they hear the word "crusade" from the lips of the most powerful man in the world.

Does America truly view itself as the adjudicator and dispenser of supreme justice? No (most would say), yet we name our missions with a messianic arrogance.

Does America truly wish to install a propaganda machine rooted in guile and disinformation at the heart of its public military effort? Not at all, says the Pentagon. But the Orwellian Office of Strategic Influence made headlines nonetheless, and many wonder if it is truly closed at all.

Lives may not be sacrificed because of insensitive words and subversive programs, but friendships are.

Most disturbing, perhaps, is not that these mistakes have been made, but that they have been made by an administration that has been so consummate and careful about the execution of policy in other areas. When these diplomatic disasters are recognized, retraction generally takes the form of half-hearted backpedaling rather than sincere apologies.

Moreover, the shades of insensitivity and dishonesty have dimmed the light of true gems in the administration's message. Americans should be able to smile at each other and proudly declare, "Let's roll!" without feeling OSI looming ominously in the background. Instead of feeling inspired by the administration's message, Americans such as 17-year-old Nathan Delmer sarcastically favored calling the war on terror "Operation Dubya Dubya Three" in lieu of "Infinite Justice."

Where these errors have been moderately damaging at home, they have been absolutely destructive abroad -- angering friends and further alienating foes. Granted, European military capabilities lag so far behind America's that unilateralists on this side of the Atlantic are justified in arguing that grumbling about "simplistic" policy does not deserve an ear. But American ingratitude toward our closest allies has created rifts that should not exist.

There were twice as many British special forces in Tora Bora as American. The British spearhead the International Security Assistance Force, which is responsible for peacekeeping and nation-building in Afghanistan. Their forces are doing the muddy grunt work that American troops don't. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been the cheerleader-in-chief for the campaign against terror. But the British received no mention in Mr. Bush's State of the Union address, which lauded American efforts without thanking our friends.

It's no wonder that Europe is getting more than a little bit annoyed with our policies. We are certainly charting the right course militarily by not allowing others to do a job we can best do ourselves. But do we have to be quite so rude about it?

Worst of all, America offers its haters ammunition in such flawed initiatives as the OSI. On March 5, the editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram speculated as to whether Daniel Pearl might have worked for the OSI and asserted that with it in place, there would be no way to tell an honest American journalist from a government spy. Let's not give anti-American voices a vehicle to vent their hatred through our own actions.

Indeed, there is another war going on besides the war to root out the evildoers: the battle for hearts and minds around the world.

Without a better check on our tongue, we will emerge as our own worst enemy, portraying ourselves as an ungrateful, insensitive giant, not the leader of the fight for freedom.

Alan L. Isenberg is a staff member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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