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Selling The War: The war's public-diplomacy campaign. by Eli Lake The War

The war's public-diplomacy campaign.

By Eli J. Lake, State Department correspondent, United Press International
November 12, 2001 8:25 a.m.

As the State Department ramps up its policy to win over the hearts and minds of the Arab world in its new war terrorism, U.S. policies may be getting in the way.

On Friday, State Department spokesman and the Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers gave an overview at the Washington Foreign Press Center. The plan includes joint press centers on three continents, an extensive new website, a concerted effort to get U.S. officials in front of television cameras from the Arab media, prominent Muslim-American spokesmen, and a whole lot of spin.

"We're going to tell the truth, and we're going to try to make sure that people understand that we're going to tell them, you know, the whole thing," Boucher told foreign journalists in Washington.

The day Beers and Boucher went through this elaborate presentation on the essential kindness of the new American campaign, UPI's story hit the Washington Times detailing the new State Department policy to essentially profile all Arab men of fighting age before granting them a temporary visa.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fox News Friday that the policy which requires an additional 20-day waiting period for 16- to 45-year-old men from over 20 Arab and Muslim nations, was necessary to protect America's borders.

"I want to assure everybody, however, that the United States remains an open country. We want people to come to our shores. But at the same time, we have to protect ourselves. And so this will be a temporary inconvenience in a number of countries, and then we hope we will get through it rather quickly," he said. This is coming from a man that took on his own party at the 1996 GOP Convention in a speech where he chastised advocates for tighter immigration laws.

When asked whether the new policy would undercut the public diplomacy campaign, Jim Zogby president of the Arab-American Institute said in an interview Friday, "Duh. It's obvious this sends a message that complicates the effort of public diplomacy and threatens to put further strains on our relationships."

But the new visa policy is only the latest in a series of moves that have angered the Arab world. Washington's reluctance to move beyond rhetoric in pressuring Israel to pull its troops from Palestinian territory; the fact that food packets dropped from the skies on Afghanistan are the same color as cluster bombs dropped on the Taliban; and President Bush's decision not to meet with Yasser Arafat are just three complaints Arabs voice over the U.S. prosecution of the war on terror. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice accused Arafat Thursday of "hugging" the anti-Israel terror group Hamas at a press conference beamed all over the world, a remark still reverberating in the region's capitals.

So American diplomats have their work cut out for them and that work is being done not just in public outreach but also through less-public diplomacy with Arab states, moderate and extreme alike.

Since the bombing campaign in Afghanistan started on October 7, U.S. ambassadors have been instructed to push Arab states to rein in their own media, a far easier task in countries with a state run press. One of the ways for example, Foggy Bottom bureaucrats have measured Syrian cooperation with Washington Post September 11 is through the absence of articles criticizing the Afghanistan bombing campaign.

In Qatar, the country that provided the start-up funds for and still partially owns what is generally recognized as the most successful experiment in free media in the Arab World - al Jazeera, U.S. officials have quietly pressured the foreign ministry to use its influence with the network to run more moderate voices in their public-affairs shows and news casts. In Venezuela, Washington recalled its ambassador for five days after President Hugo Chavez went on national television chastising the U.S. war with pictures of dead Afghan children.

When the argument is made publicly, the U.S. campaign has three parts. To start U.S. and British press operations centers in Washington, London, and soon in Islamabad, will provide a rapid response to information from the Taliban on the actual bombing campaign. This should be a fairly easy task considering the Taliban's track record in providing accurate information.

Remember the daily messages from the Taliban after September 11 regarding Osama bin Laden's whereabouts? The de facto Afghan government delivered three irreconcilable messages. At first they claimed they didn't know where he was. Then they said they will discuss handing him over if presented with proof he was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Finally the Taliban insisted it would fight to protect him.

Since the air war has started, the Taliban's information has been even less reliable. Aid workers and reporters on the ground have debunked most of the Taliban's casualty statistics despite a concerted effort to hide military assets in civilian areas.

The second more difficult task in message war is to vilify bin Laden and his network of terrorists. So far, nearly all Arab leaders with the notable exception of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, have condemned al Qaeda and the acts of September 11. Part of the new campaign, Beers told reporters, would be a web movie depicting the attacks, playing ominous synthesized music. The new site also features a nice table listing everything bin Laden has said that implicates him and his associates.

Finally, the new public-diplomacy effort will attempt to convince the Arab world that the new war is not against them. U.S. officials have consistently reminded the press since October 7 that in the last ten years, the United States has gone to war twice to defend Muslims - in Kuwait and later in Bosnia. But both cases are slightly disingenuous.

The NATO campaign in Bosnia started over two years after the Serb atrocities against Muslims in that country began, for the first two and a half years of the conflict, the United States essentially sat on the sidelines, warily endorsing a small and ineffective U.N. peacekeeping force in lieu of real military action.

In Iraq, President Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam only to fail to give them the vital air support the rebels would need, leaving a dictator in place that would go on to kill thousands more over the next ten years.

Both examples reveal a more salient fact that informs the current politics surrounding the new war on terrorism - America is the world's lone superpower and it supports or allows most of the unfree regimes that steal from, suppress, and stifle Arab peoples. On this point, as diabolical as bin Laden is, he has the upper hand. Where would Egypt, a country that this year imprisoned its most celebrated political intellectual for accepting honorariums from foreign governments, be without U.S. military support? What options for social mobility are there for Palestinians living in Kuwait, a regime American troops defended in the Gulf War? Why didn't U.S. special forces kill Saddam Hussein when they had the chance?

And these questions will require a lot more than fancy websites and 24-hour press centers to answer. It will require a reexamination of American policy, war or no war on terrorism.

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