Archive for April 2003

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[eccr] NYT ed: The Ring of Truth?

Tue Apr 08 09:13:26 GMT 2003

Title: NYT ed: The Ring of Truth?


April 8, 2003

The Ring of Truth?


DOHA, Qatar

The front line in the war for hearts and minds in the Arab world and beyond is here, at the U.S. Central Command headquarters and media center, and it's prettier than most battlefields. The stage that the generals speak from each day was built for the government by a showbiz professional at a cost of $250,000, and it's as high-tech as an Abrams tank.

But not, unfortunately, as effective.

One of America's most historic and bipartisan traditions is to do an execrable job explaining itself to the world. The average Fortune 500 company is far more sophisticated at getting its message across abroad than the U.S. government has been.

To its great credit, the Bush administration gets this. From President Bush on down, particularly since 9/11, the administration has scrambled to win over folks in Yemen and Pakistan and Indonesia as if they were Florida voters. Mr. Bush hounds cabinet members to give interviews to Al Jazeera television, a new White House office flatters foreign reporters by spinning them, and the U.S. began Radio Sawa to seduce Iraqis and other Arabs with sirens like Jennifer Lopez. The brilliant system of embedding journalists in U.S. military units includes Arab journalists.

"By improving the way you get your message across, you have the ability to save lives," notes Jim Wilkinson, a former White House press official who is running the Central Command's P.R. campaign. And he's absolutely right: the battle for global opinion is less dramatic than the one in Baghdad but no less important.

President Bush's determination to sell the U.S., and its product of the season ‹ the war in Iraq ‹ to a skeptical Muslim world is evident here in Qatar, a flat expanse of desert that peeps out of the turquoise waters of the gulf. Telegenic generals like Vincent Brooks were chosen to be the congenial face of the American Imperium, the briefings are translated simultaneously into Arabic, and Al Jazeera was assigned a front-row seat for the briefings (The New York Times is in the second row).

The generals have just borrowed a couple of Arabic-speaking diplomats from the State Department to spin Arabs in their own language, and the experts have been coaching pronunciations: General Brooks is no longer pronouncing the town of Umm Qasr as Umm Qazir (which sounds like the Arabic for "filthy mother").

So why does everybody still hate us? Even in Britain, one of the rare countries where a traveling American isn't tempted to seek camouflage by donning an "O Canada" T-shirt, a poll last week found that fewer than one person in seven trusts President Bush to tell the truth.

The central problem was underscored for me by a Chinese journalist who sat next to me during a U.S. military briefing here in Doha.

"This is propaganda," he said brightly. "I was born and grew up in a propaganda country, and so I know it well." He beamed. "Actually, they do the propaganda very well, better than we do it. We in China can learn from this propaganda."

Fundamentally, the administration's overseas efforts resemble those of the Chinese Communist Party: excellent effort, lousy execution. The Bush administration knows how important this issue is (which the Clinton administration never did), but there's a Beijing-style rah-rah self-righteousness, too earnest by half, so the propaganda fizzles, even from a $250,000 stage.

Moreover, as Raghida Dergham, a columnist for Al Hayat, an Arabic newspaper published in London, notes, "It's the policy, stupid." Arab perceptions of America are framed by Mr. Bush's coziness with Ariel Sharon. No amount of spin can soften that; it will take a serious and balanced Middle East peace initiative of the kind that Tony Blair is urging.

When he was secretary of state, James Baker was a master of both policy and spin. He had a light touch and could spin reporters like Ping-Pong balls; these days, we Ping-Pong balls just feel whacked.

At U.S. briefings, from Mr. Bush on down, we're always on plan, and our coalitions are always the largest in history. The U.S. effort to manufacture a huge global coalition involved an embarrassing effort to recruit microdots in the Pacific, and the White House proudly put out a list of supporting countries that included the Solomon Islands. When reporters asked the Solomon Islands' prime minister about the support, he said he was "completely unaware" of that.

Even China's propaganda officials can do better than that.  

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