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Iraq: As Antiwar Protests Erupt, U.S. Hopes To Win The PR Battle

  • Jeffrey Donovan

As war in Iraq moved into its second day, protests against the conflict have erupted around the world. Although its ultimate military victory looks likely, can Washington ever win the public-relations battle for international opinion?

Washington, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Now that the United States-led war against Iraq has begun, Washington is also hoping to secure victory on a second front: the ever-important battle for international public opinion -- the "PR war."

So far, with only the first salvos fired in what U.S. President George W. Bush says could be a long and difficult campaign, world opinion appears firmly opposed to Bush's bid to topple Saddam Hussein without the explicit sanction of the United Nations.

Yesterday, antiwar protests erupted around the world as American precision-guided bombs and cruise missiles rained down on select targets in Baghdad for a second straight day. Demonstrations continued today, with protesters in Indonesia and Australia voicing their opposition to the U.S.-led war. In Jakarta, protesters carried signs reading "Bush is a monkey" and shouting out chants and songs.

Bush and other U.S. officials have sought to portray the war as an internationally popular operation backed by a coalition of 40 countries, even though only Britain and Australia are actually contributing combat troops.

Speaking during a cabinet meeting yesterday, Bush again sought to portray the conflict in a multilateral light, saying the war was supported by an "ever-growing coalition of the willing." "Over 40 nations now support our efforts. We are grateful for their determination, we appreciate their vision, and we welcome their support," Bush said.

Both White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told briefings yesterday that today's coalition -- which contains several "secret partners" which for internal political reasons do not want to be seen as backing the war -- is larger than the massive coalition that backed Washington in the 1991 Gulf War.

But that assertion left some observers scratching their heads because many coalition members in the first war -- including Arab countries Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt -- contributed militarily to that conflict, which was also explicitly sanctioned by the United Nations.

Such confusion may explain at least partly why the Bush administration's PR offensive is already meeting stiff opposition.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in protests yesterday in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the United States, and Egypt. Meanwhile, continuing their opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq, China, Russia, France, and Germany condemned the war as illegal and illegitimate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who only recently was thought of as perhaps Bush's key international partner in the war on terrorism, offered perhaps the sharpest rebuke of Washington's war in Iraq: "This military action cannot be justified by anything: neither by accusations that Iraq supports international terrorism -- we have never had such information -- nor by the desire to change the country's political regime, which goes against international law and can be determined only by citizens of [that] country."

By most accounts, America is likely to succeed in toppling Saddam and disarming Iraq. But given the world outcry against the war, can America ever hope to win the parallel contest -- the battle for the world's hearts of minds?

Maurizio Molinari is the U.S. correspondent for the influential Italian daily "La Stampa." He thinks the biggest problem for Washington, as far as European public opinion goes, has been its apparent snub of the opinions of its traditional allies and determination to proceed to war no matter what the world community says.

But Molinari told RFE/RL that the Bush administration could quickly win back a lot of skeptical Europeans. "If the war will be quick and successful, it will be much easier to [win the PR battle]. And of course, if Saddam will commit a mistake, to use prohibited weapons -- chemical and biological weapons or [prohibited] Scud missiles -- it would be much easier to defend and to explain the reason of this administration," Molinari said.

However, Molinari warned that a drawn-out siege of Baghdad with lots of civilian casualties could gravely hurt Washington's case.

And in the end, he said the Bush administration will have to work hard to at least appear to want to involve the Western European powers in reconstructing Iraq if it wants to mend the damaged Atlantic alliance.

Siegfried Buschschluter basically agrees. But Buschschluter, the U.S. correspondent for Germany's Deutschland Radio, believes it will be harder to win back European skeptics to Washington's view, even if the war goes fast and casualties are few.

He said that if Saddam is shown to possess some of the chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction that Washington says he has -- or if he uses such weapons or destroys Iraqi oil wells -- then many Germans could soften their views on the war and the conduct of the Bush administration. But, he adds: "It wouldn't do away with their antipathy and the feeling that the Americans do not have to respect international law, because there is no changing the fact that most Germans feel that this runs counter to international law and that these weapons of mass destruction would have been found by the inspectors, and the only way to disarm another country is not by regime change but by using the United Nations and abiding by Security Council resolutions."

The Bush administration, for its part, says the war is justified under international law, specifically under 12 years' of UN resolutions that have demanded complete Iraqi disarmament as part of the truce that ended the 1991 Gulf War.

Washington also maintains that what little Iraqi cooperation there may have been in the latest round of UN arms inspections only came about under the direct threat of U.S. military attack.

Yesterday, Bush said the war is ultimately meant to make the world a safer and more peaceful place.

According to Vittorio Zucconi, a columnist for Italy's leading daily "La Repubblica," it's that vow that will ultimately be the measure by which the war is judged. "This is the sense, the key, the moral of this war," Zucconi wrote yesterday. "Not the defeat of a miserable army, which is certain, but the life of all those who are supposed to be freed. And the life of all of us who from today on face a global terrorism which -- if it exists -- may not wait long to make the bite of its revenge felt."

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