The American Portrayal of a War of Liberation Is Faltering Across the Arab World
New York Times
Saturday 05 April 2003
WASHINGTON -- To win over the Islamic world in the war of public relations, the Bush administration's message masters devised a theme, "Iraq: From Fear to Freedom," that casts the war as a humanitarian venture to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein.
The message is told in televised scenes of military doctors caring for Iraqi civilians and stories of marines passing out relief. The images are aggressively promoted to Middle Eastern television outlets, newspapers and opinion makers.
"Our mission in Iraq will be to serve the interests and the hopes of the Iraqi people," says the State Department's public diplomacy Web site, which includes a photograph gallery with scenes of soldiers dousing oil fires, passing out relief, bandaging wounds but never firing their weapons.
But the administration's public relations drive has floundered because the relief effort is stalled in the southern tip of Iraq. And the message does not address what the Arab media view as the main story: the invasion of Iraq by America troops.
This week, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, asserted that photographs of Iraqi women and children supposed to have been killed accidentally by American soldiers were creating more Osama bin Ladens, while young Arabs from neighboring countries are volunteering for a new jihad in Iraq.
"Every time a civilian gets killed in Iraq, it's another nail in the coffin in the grand cause to enlist Iraq in a democracy," said John R. MacArthur, author of "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War."
Administration officials acknowledge their difficulties. Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said in an interview that while he believes the administration is making progress relaying its message, "we also face many challenges."
"Many of the Middle Eastern people have been fed a steady diet of anti-American propaganda," he said, which helps explain why "not everyone shares our assessment" that the American war is necessary.
Stuart Holliday, the director of international information programs at the State Department's public diplomacy office, said it was much easier to convey a positive story of American involvement in Afghanistan than it has been in Iraq.
"This is very different," he said. "You obviously have a very active and wider array of media coverage that is capturing many, many more individual snapshots of what's happening. Their graphic images are emotionally gripping and are difficult to compete with."
Khaled Abdelkariem, a Washington-based correspondent for the Middle East News Agency who regularly attends briefings by the State Department, said the problem is that the administration's emphasis on soldiers delivering food and medicine rather than discussing why a foreign army is invading Iraq has often seemed patronizing.
"The Arabs or Muslims are not 4-year-old kids who don't know what's happening around them," he said. "I appreciate their efforts, but I'm afraid it's not working. This feed-and-kill policy -- throwing bombs in Baghdad and throwing food at the people -- is not winning hearts and minds."
Absent by design from this message is the administration's initial rationale for the war: to protect the United States from weapons of mass destruction. "The primary motivating factor of the war for the president is the safety of the American people, our friends and allies," said a senior administration official explaining this discrepancy. "At the same time, there is a tremendous benefit to the Iraqi people that they will be liberated. In the Middle East, the weapons of mass destruction threat doesn't translate, but what resonates is liberation and the humanitarian aspects."
This was not the arc that the communications campaign was meant to follow when it began at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.
In those days of limitless sympathy after Sept. 11, several high-profile women in the administration perfected the system of promoting one positive message every day of the war. They envisaged a 21st-century version of the propaganda war waged during World War II.
But most of these women are now gone. Karen P. Hughes resigned as White House communications director. Mary Matalin left as chief political adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Charlotte Beers quit last month as head of public diplomacy at the State Department.
Their open-door policy, which reaped countless positive articles, has been replaced by officials who speak sparingly to the news media and are dwarfed by the huge military communications operation. Tucker Eskew, the director of the White House office of global communications, which grew out of their work, refused to comment.
An official involved in the effort said, "There is less imagination, less high-level involvement, too little, too late."
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