If the US is serious about `draining the swamp', then the propaganda war will ultimately dictate whether it succeeds, but its efforts so far in this area have been uninspiring to say the least, and when compared to the public relations efforts of Osama Bin Laden, they appear downright amateurish. Protestations by Donald Rumsfeld that the US is doing its utmost to avoid civilian casualties ring hollow when Al Jazeera is broadcasting daily pictures of bombed out houses and bandaged children lying on hospital beds.
The dropping of food rations in Afghanistan has likewise met with reactions varying from indifference to downright cynicism. Jordanian newspaper Al-Ra'i printed a cartoon showing an aircraft dropping bombs and food rations together, while Pakistan newspaper the Frontier Post described the food drops as `a joke in very poor taste'. Further reports of the similarity between the food packages and unexploded cluster bomblets has done little to improve matters.
Whether or not the US is actually bombing civilians (with ordnance or food) is beside the point. In the propaganda war, what counts are the perceptions of people around the world, and of Muslims in particular. If there is one man who knows this more than most, then it is the Pakistani President, General Musharraf, who has been walking the tightrope between overwhelming anti-bombing sentiment on the one hand, and the demands of the US government on the other. He has repeatedly been calling for the bombing to stop during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, knowing that continued bombing undermines claims by Western leaders that they are not waging a war against Islam. Speaking in Paris on Thursday, he tried to highlight the issue of public relations, '[The bombing] is being perceived in the whole world as if this were a war against the poor, miserable and innocent people of Afghanistan'. This is, of course, partly self-preservation. General Musharraf will be the first to feel the backlash if the undercurrents of Muslim disapproval with the bombing explode into the open.
Perhaps recognising that the West is losing the war for hearts and minds, Mr. Bush has done what Western politicians do when they have public relations problems. He called in the people from Madison Avenue. The Pentagon has signed up public relations firm the Rendon group to a four-month contract worth $400,000, in an effort to help it 'orient to the challenge of communicating to a wide range of groups around the world'.
The hiring of the Rendon group follows on from the setting up of a media center in Islamabad designed to counter 'untruths and lies', and the appointment of former advertising executive Charlotte Beers to the post of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, or as some cynics have called it, the `secretary of state for propaganda'. Ms. Beers has not lost time in defining her role. `We are having people who are not our friends define America in negative terms,' she told Advertising Age magazine. `It is time for us to reignite the understanding of America'. And to the House International Relations Committee last month: `It's not what we say, it's what they hear. So the burden is now on us to act as though no on has ever understood the identity of the United States, and redefine it for audiences who are at best cynical'.
The New York Times columnist Frank Rich weighed up her prospects in an article* two weeks ago: 'Maybe we're losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds in part because... [Ms. Beers] is a CEO (from Madison Avenue) chosen not for her expertise in policy or politics but for her salesmanship on behalf of domestic products like Head & Shoulders shampoo. If we can't effectively fight anthrax, I guess it's reassuring to know we can always win the war on dandruff'.
Meanwhile, from his cave in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden has been directing his own public relations with the help of a camcorder and Al Jazeera. Bin Laden may or may not be `psychotic', as the real British Foreign Minister Jack Straw described him, but there is no doubt he is a smart man when it comes to public relations. Goebbels himself would have been impressed. By refusing to confirm or deny any involvement in the attacks in New York and Washington, he has undermined Western attempts to portray him in the Muslim world as a hate figure. Even more importantly, he has turned this into a war against Islam. Despite all the Western rhetoric to the contrary, and whether or not bin Laden is a religious zealot with an intolerance of all things non-Islamic, by repeatedly focusing on Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Palestinians, he has managed to create an air of legitimacy around himself. Even moderate voices in the Muslim world are not convinced by the US. An editorial this week in Pakistan's English language daily, Dawn, warns the US and its allies to tread carefully: 'Already, the Muslim world feels deeply hurt by Washington's carte blanche to Israel for its genocidal policies against the Palestinian people. Add to it Washington's persistently hostile policies toward such Muslim countries as Syria, Iran, Libya and Sudan and one at once detects a strong anti-Muslim slant in American policies'.
With such volatility in the region, Ms. Beers is going to have her work cut out if she is to convince the world that America is not the Great Satan that bin Laden portrays it as. With so much at stake, the West will hope that she succeeds.
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