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U.S.: Revamped Information Campaign Seeks Arab-Muslim Support

  • Ron Synovitz

Washington has been revamping the way it delivers its messages about the fight against terrorism in an attempt to build support within the Muslim and Arab worlds. A speech today by President George W. Bush -- relayed by satellite to a conference of Central and Eastern European officials in Warsaw -- is the latest attempt to get Washington's viewpoint out to the rest of the world. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines some of the messages in Bush's speech and how they reflect the goals of the changing U.S. information campaign.

Prague, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Washington has launched a new global information campaign to bolster support for military strikes in Afghanistan, as well as the wider campaign against international terrorism.

Much of the administration's emerging strategy appears aimed at winning over public opinion in Arab and Muslim states that are part of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. The development comes amid concerns that public opposition in those countries to U.S.-led strikes is increasing pressure on political leaders who back the antiterrorism coalition.

The latest effort to express Washington's views abroad came today when President George W. Bush delivered a speech by satellite to a summit of Central and Eastern European leaders in Warsaw.

Bush reiterated a series of themes that are at the heart of the new information campaign. Namely, that the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network are trying to fuel hatred between Muslims and the rest of the world for their own gain, and that they are misrepresenting the peaceful teachings of Islam.

"We have seen the true nature of these terrorists in the nature of their attacks," Bush said. "They kill thousands of innocent people and then rejoice about it. They kill fellow Muslims, many of whom died in the World Trade Center that terrible morning, and then they gloat. They condone murder and claim to be doing so in the name of a peaceful religion."

Bush repeated Washington's stance that the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan are targeting terrorist extremists rather than Muslims. He also called for political leaders around the world to enhance their efforts within the antiterrorism coalition: "The defeat of terror requires an international coalition of unprecedented scope and cooperation. It demands the sincere, sustained actions of many nations against the network of terrorist cells and bases and funding."

Bush also placed the blame on the Taliban for any civilian casualties in Afghanistan caused by the U.S.-led strikes. He said the Taliban had brought about the attacks because of its ongoing support for bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. He also warned that terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda are trying to obtain chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in order to threaten other nations: "Our enemies have brought only misery and terror to the people of Afghanistan. And now, they are trying to export that terror throughout the world. Al-Qaeda operates in more than 60 nations -- including some in Central and Eastern Europe. These terrorist groups seek to destabilize entire nations and regions."

The remarks by Bush today reflect a common theme expressed by other officials in his administration. That theme is aimed at countering the attempts of bin Laden and the Taliban to win sympathy and support in the Arab and Muslim worlds by labeling the military strikes against them as "a war on Islam."

Arthur Helton is an expert at a New York-based policy institute called the Center for Foreign Policy. Helton says bin Laden has shown a talent for public relations and agenda-setting in Arab states through the videotaped messages he has sent to the Qatar-based Arab satellite television channel Al-Jazeera: "It's probably astute public relations on the part of Osama bin Laden to attempt to link his cause to that reservoir of smoldering anger and concern [in the Arab world over the Palestinian-Israeli crisis]."

For their part, officials in Washington have admitted they were slow to realize the importance of Al-Jazeera as a way to communicate to much of the Arab world. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in October that Washington needs to improve the way it communicates to ordinary citizens in foreign countries -- including the Arab and Muslim states that are part of the antiterrorism coalition: "We have to do a better job. Our cause is just. What we are doing is right and we have absolutely nothing to hide. The other folks don't function in free systems. They don't function with a free press. They are trying to manipulate world opinion in a way that is advantageous to them and disadvantageous to us."

Since Rumsfeld made that remark, he and other senior U.S. officials have given a series of interviews to Al-Jazeera. Those officials have included Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers.

To counter mounting criticism of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Britain also have set up round-the-clock information centers in Islamabad, London, and Washington. Until recently, claims made at Taliban press conferences in Pakistan have gone unanswered for up to eight hours because of the time difference between Washington and Islamabad.

Christopher Ross, a former U.S. diplomat in Syria who speaks Arabic, has come out of retirement to work as a special adviser to the U.S. State Department. His primary task is to express the views of the State Department in Arabic to Arab reporters in a timely manner.

Ross appeared live on Al-Jazeera just hours after the channel had broadcast a new videotaped message from bin Laden. Both the State Department and the White House praised Ross's efforts as "useful."

A bill under consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives this week calls for more than $19 million to be appropriated for the creation of a Radio Free Afghanistan. However, that bill does not have a co-sponsor in the U.S. Senate, and there is disagreement over the plan between legislators and the Bush administration. The U.S.-government funded Voice of America already broadcasts on shortwave radio frequencies into Afghanistan in several local languages.

The United States also reportedly is transmitting at least five hours of daily radio broadcasts on frequencies that had been used by the Taliban until their main broadcasting facilities were destroyed by U.S. air strikes. Those U.S. broadcasts include patriotic Afghan music and love songs that have been outlawed by the Taliban.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reports that the transmissions also are warning listeners that the Taliban is opposed by many countries around the world -- not just the United States -- and that people should distance themselves from the regime.

Britain has been leading a diplomatic effort in Western Europe and the Middle East to bolster support for the ongoing attacks in Afghanistan. Public opinion polls in the West show that support for the air strikes has declined since the second week of the raids, which began on 7 October. A narrow majority in France and England still supports the strikes. But that support has fallen by 12 to 15 percent in the last two weeks.

In Spain, surveys show about 69 percent think the air strikes should stop. In Poland, one of NATO's newest members, support has fallen in the last month from 58 percent to 28 percent.

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