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U.S.: Washington Begins Public Relations Campaign In War Effort

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. may be winning the military war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but it is struggling in the war of public opinion. Now it understands that it must speak out wherever it can to assure Muslims around the world that its war against international terrorism is not a war against Islam itself.

Washington, 16 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Washington appears to have opened a new front in its war on international terrorism: a public relations campaign.

Since the U.S. began bombing Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, Muslims in many parts of the world have been staging demonstrations -- some of them violent -- to protest the attacks.

At first, U.S. President George W. Bush and his top aides expressed a kind of bewilderment at the protests. On 11 October, Bush himself said at a White House news conference that "we've got to do a better job" to make Muslims understand that America is making war only on terrorists, not on Islam as a whole.

Ever since the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that killed more than 5,000 people, Bush and members of his cabinet have been repeating that point. But their message, it seems, never got beyond the U.S. shores.

But now, senior Bush administration officials are granting interviews to Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language television station based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar that beams news programming throughout the Middle East via satellite.

For the first month after the 11 September attacks, senior U.S. officials were not available for interviews with Al-Jazeera. But now several of them have appeared to give America's side of the story. Among those scheduled to give interviews to the network are Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, and Donald Rumsfeld, his defense secretary.

At yesterday's daily briefing on the progress of the war, Rumsfeld said the U.S. is determined to have the world know exactly where it stands.

"We have to do a better job. I mean, our cause is just, what we're doing is right, and we have absolutely nothing to hide. The other folks don't function in free systems. They don't function with free press. They are trying to manipulate world opinion in a way that is advantageous to them and disadvantageous to us."

And it is about time, according to Arthur Helton, the director of peace and conflict studies at the Center for Foreign Relations, a New York policy institute. He says the U.S. has squandered opportunities to show that it is a friend of Muslims after it risked troops to defend Kuwait a decade ago, and more recently to defend Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Helton says the U.S. gets little credit for these actions. He concedes that in the case of Kuwait, Washington went to war at least in part to protect its oil interests there. But he emphasizes that he believes that the overriding reasons in all three cases were humanitarian, and that the American government has for some reason not taken the trouble to take the credit publicly.

"We haven't really either explained or indeed oftentimes been fully motivated by the humanitarian concerns at issue. And in that sense, we should do a better job engaging in explaining our motivations and our objectives."

Gary Dempsey, a foreign affairs analyst at the Cato Institute, an Washington policy center, agrees. He says many Muslims look at U.S. and allied help for Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo in an entirely different way than Westerners do.

For instance, according to Dempsey, protecting Kuwait was merely a way to prop up a corrupt monarchy. And he says the defense of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo merely emphasizes to Muslims elsewhere that there is what he called "an anti-Islam sentiment in Europe, in that case epitomized by Orthodox Serbs."

Helton says the U.S. probably has no one but itself to blame for its bad standing in the Islamic world by not being more outspoken about the missions to help Muslims in Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo. But he says it is not too late for Washington to act aggressively to make sure that its voice is not "distorted," as he put it, by people like Osama bin Laden, whom the U.S. blames for the New York and Washington attacks.

In the meantime, bin Laden has seized the public relations initiative by linking his cause to the status of the Palestinians. In a videotape issued on 7 October -- the day the U.S. air strikes began in Afghanistan -- bin Laden vowed that Americans would know no security until Palestinians also felt secure in their own land.

The status of the Palestinians is important to Muslims around the world, according to both Helton and Dempsey. They say Muslims see Palestinians as victims of Israel and, indirectly, Israel's champion, the United States.

Dempsey said the year-old Palestinian uprising in Gaza and the West Bank has kept the issue foremost in the minds of Muslims everywhere.

"I think the Palestinian issue is the one that resonates most widely because of the history, because of the recent bloodshed."

Helton agrees, and adds that the U.S. should have acted long ago to reach an equitable peace settlement in the region.

"If there was a sustainable and enduring settlement and peace in the Middle East, that would deprive these extremist elements of a convenient form of propaganda and rabble rousing."

Dempsey points out that when bin Laden declared war on the U.S. in 1998, he confined his complaints to the presence of U.S. troops -- Christian and Jewish troops, whom he calls "infidels" -- in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.

"And he's subsequently sort of broadened his net of complaints to include now the Palestinian situation and the ongoing sanctions against Iraq. So he's -- it's simply a political maneuver to try to bring in as much support for his view by trying to turn in some cases legitimate gripes into a justification for what he's doing."

Helton and Dempsey recalled that 10 years ago, just before the U.S. and its coalition partners sent troops into Kuwait to drive out Iraqi forces, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said his invasion of the small kingdom was done in the name of the Palestinians.

According to Helton and Dempsey, Saddam's claim was a cynical effort to weaken the anti-Iraq coalition, which included several Muslim states. And they said bin Laden's claim is equally cynical.

But both also emphasize that for too long the U.S. has been as silent about its help for Muslims as it has been vocal about its support for Israel. Now, they say, Washington seems to be prepared to let the Islamic world know where it stands.

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