Bush, Blair fighting onslaught of images

Officials are concerned casualties, resistance perceived inaccurately

War In Iraq

March 26, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain will meet at Camp David tomorrow, with both leaders seeking to sustain support for the war and to counter perceptions that Iraqi resistance is stiffer than expected and that higher coalition casualties are now more likely.

In the United States and Britain, round-the-clock news coverage is beaming home piercing images, from an Iraqi citizen tearing down Saddam Hussein's likeness on a billboard, to dead U.S. soldiers crumpled on a floor. More than in previous conflicts, these visual images are being conveyed with such clarity and immediacy that some believe they could quickly mold public opinion about the war.

In response, Bush, Blair and their advisers have asserted their resolve and their conviction that victory is a foregone conclusion - while trying to dampen any expectations that the war could be won without much sacrifice.

U.S. and British officials have expressed concern that televised news reports on individual casualties, shown repeatedly all day, have made the figures seem higher than they are and made the duration of the war seem longer than it has been.

"What we're seeing is every second, another slice of what's actually happening out there," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon yesterday. "It is a breathtaking sight to see it. It tends to be all accurate, but not in an overall context. And it does ... leave people with the impression that it's been going on for days and weeks and months.

"It even seems like weeks to me," Rumsfeld said of the war, which began the night of March 19.

In fact, American casualties have been light in comparison to the 1991 Persian Gulf war that lasted only days. At this stage, far fewer Americans have died in the ground campaign than the 148 U.S. soldiers killed in the earlier war.

This week, Blair told the British Parliament that "there are, of course, difficulties that have arisen, tragedies and accidents."

"That is in the nature of war," he added. "And it is in the nature of today's instant, live reporting of war, that people see the pain and blood in vivid and shocking terms."

On Sunday, when 16 U.S. soldiers were killed and at least five were captured, and a British plane was accidentally shot down by a U.S. missile, Bush insisted that the United States was making "progress" - a word he used seven times in brief remarks on the White House lawn after returning from Camp David.

"It's important for the American people to realize that this war has just begun," the president said. "It may seem like a long time because of all the action on TV. But in terms of the overall strategy, we're just in the beginning phases."

Two weeks ago, Bush stressed to communications staff from the White House, Pentagon and other departments that he wanted war news coming from the administration to be carefully coordinated and dispensed with as much discipline as military planners use in wartime.

During the first days of the war, Bush himself offered only a few public remarks, as encouraging reports flowed in that U.S. and British warplanes were destroying Hussein's palaces and that the first ground forces in Iraq were being greeted as liberators.

But the news grew more somber over the weekend, with reports of U.S. and British casualties and stark images of American prisoners of war. The reports appeared to erode some of the public confidence that the war would be brief, with relatively few casualties, polls showed.

The president has since taken on a more public role. Today, he will speak during a visit to the U.S. military's central command in Tampa, Fla., and he is meeting with Blair tomorrow.

Relentless coverage of the war by cable networks has saturated viewers with pictures and news of minute-to-minute developments. As viewers seek a story line to help explain the cascading flow of information, their opinions can shift abruptly, depending on whether the news seems positive or negative.

In a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, for example, the proportion of Americans who believed the war was going very well dropped sharply, from 71 percent Friday to 38 percent Monday, after the first disquieting reports of U.S. casualties.

Other national polls showed similar trends, including that as of Sunday, more Americans expect a longer war and a war with more casualties, compared with last week. At the same time, underlying support for the war has remained solid - about 70 percent in most surveys.

Still, analysts said, Bush and Blair are wise to repeatedly assert their message that the war is succeeding, especially at moments when bad news is arriving from the battlefield. The stakes are high for both leaders, who stood together for invading Iraq in the face of overwhelming international opposition and whose political careers could hinge on the war's outcome.

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