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Monday, March 31

U.S. losing battle worldwide on public relations front

By Carl Weiser | GNS

WASHINGTON - Through Arabic satellite TV channels, radio stations and newspapers, the Bush administration's message about the Iraq war - that it's a noble venture to disarm a dictator and free the Iraqi people - is reaching the Arab and Muslim world.

It's just that almost no one believes it.

"It has fallen on deaf ears,'' said Khaled Al-Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News. The English-language daily is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "I have been crisscrossing the country for the past week: the eastern region, the western, talking to liberals, conservatives, socialists, agnostics and very secular people, too. All of the people have come to the conclusion that America speaks with a forked tongue, as Chief Sitting Bull would say,'' he said. "People simply do not believe Mr. Bush.''

"Every time American officials open their mouth about the war, they provoke people against the war,'' said Lamis Andoni, a Berkeley, Calif.-based correspondent for the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram who has been monitoring three Arabic satellite channels. "They'd be better off if they stop appearing on Arab television.''

On the public relations front of the Iraq war, the United States is losing. And it's not for lack of talking.

Arabic news services show and report on President Bush's speeches and coalition commanders' briefings. They're often carried live and uncensored. The State Department has about 50 people dedicated to spreading the American message on the war and an Arabic language Web page on the war that has had more than 1 million hits in the past two weeks.

A new White House Office of Global Communications has been e-mailing daily talking points to embassies, ensuring the Pentagon briefing doesn't conflict with the State Department briefing, and arranging interview after interview with world media.

One day last week Secretary of State Colin Powell did four interviews with channels in Egypt, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and India.

Yet massive anti-war and anti-U.S. protests have swept through the Middle East. Polls there show almost universal opposition. The United States is seen overwhelmingly as an invading aggressor out to colonize Iraq and its oil, not a liberator out to make the world safer.

"I don't think we've persuaded them in the least,'' said Benjamin Gilman, a former New York GOP congressman and now chairman of the GlobalPAC, a group formed this month to push for more money for public diplomacy.

The Bush administration, Congress and public diplomacy specialists agree that convincing the Muslim and Arab world of the United States' good intentions - and good deeds - are nearly as important as winning the war militarily.

Efforts to sway regular folks, as opposed to government officials, are known as ``public diplomacy.'' It's really the 21st century form of diplomacy because it's so much more important than the traditional form of diplomacy, said Harold Pachios, chairman of the State Department's Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

"I think that this war has shown the importance of public diplomacy,'' said Stuart Holliday, the State Department's coordinator of international information programs. "International public opinion and reaction to the images coming from the various media ... reverberates and resonates very quickly.''

Even the most repressive governments in the Middle East are incredibly sensitive to public opinion. Witness the refusal of some Arab governments to acknowledge their involvement in the war in light of their citizens' opposition.

And Pachios' assessment of the U.S. government's public diplomacy efforts?

"It's pretty bad, isn't it?'' he said.

$1 billion budget

The United States spends about $1 billion a year on public diplomacy. The head of the State Department's public diplomacy efforts, Charlotte Beers, left office this past month because of health reasons; so far no replacement has been nominated.

Beers' departure has not hurt the U.S. public diplomacy efforts on the war, Holliday said.

Beers, a former advertising executive, was confirmed just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. During her tenure, the administration launched an Arabic-language radio station called Radio Sawa. It produced an 18-minute documentary on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, which ran on Pakistan television. It produced a series of small documentaries on Muslim life in America, which aired in Indonesia. Next year the government hopes to start an Arabic-language satellite channel to compete with Qatar-based al-Jazeera. Beers made certain the government tested the success of those campaigns, and they have, by and large, helped the U.S. image.

But with Iraq, the problem is not changing images. It is credibility.

Until now, the United States has shown little interest in installing democracy in the Middle East, al-Maeena said. It has shown little interest in the welfare of Arabs or Muslims in general. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict eats away daily at American credibility.

"The main thing you have to realize is that you cannot disengage the Palestinian issue. It's too emotional,'' he said. "For America to show good faith is to solve the Palestine issue.''

Polls from the Middle East and Muslim world show overwhelming hostility to America's foreign policy, according to Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. They see the Bush administration as picking on Muslim countries, unfair to Palestinians and supportive of repressive regimes.

Few Arabs or Muslims saw Saddam Hussein as a threat. They know exactly how ruthless he is, but they worry more about a new global empire run from Washington, said Andoni, who opposes the war.

"There's no way the U.S. can sell this war to anyone,'' she said. "It's not a matter of packaging. It's not a matter of public diplomacy. ...America's imperialism is clear and blatant. This is the only solution they have: bombing, bombing, bombing. This is why they're losing in the Arab world.''

Info flows both ways

The Bush administration knows exactly how it is doing in the Arab world. It daily monitors TV and news reports. Some is publicly available on a State Department Web site.

The summary of one day's news reports carried the sobering summary: Many Islamist outlets cited ``killed Iraqis'' as proof of U.S.-U.K. ``genocide'' and military casualties as evidence of U.S. ``failure.'' Friday's headlines focused on the United States facing a longer war than previously thought.

Virtually every news report from the Middle East, even in papers from allied countries like Qatar, railed against the war, calling it U.S. aggression and they lauded Iraqi heroism.

Holliday said lack of credibility for U.S. officials stems partly from the Arab's public's skepticism of their own governments. They extend that to other governments' representatives as well.

Sometimes versions of events from American leaders and local Arabic media are so different they simply can't reconcile the two, he said.

American officials say they believe the public relations tide will turn: Soon pictures will show humanitarian relief. Iraqis will feel freer to compare life under Saddam with their new lives. Democracy will emerge in Iraq.

"When we fix Iraq and when we show progress with the Middle East peace process, then people can see that this is a nation that is not against any religion - especially not the religion of Islam,'' Powell said. "And I think we can turn public opinion around in due course.''

Longer term, many in Washington believe the solution is more money for public diplomacy.

Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted in February that for every dollar spent by the U.S. government on the military, only 7 cents is spent on diplomacy. Out of that 7 cents only about one-fourth of a penny is devoted to public diplomacy.

In addition to more money, changing hearts in the rest of the world will require a change in government officials' mindsets, Pachios said.

The president must consider every remark's repercussion not just domestically, but in the rest of the world, where his remarks may be carried live.

For example, U.S. audiences like to hear Bush talk about the might of the American military. They liked the idea of giving Saddam an ultimatum.

"But people around the world don't like the fact that one country only can give all the countries in the world ultimatums,'' Pachios said. "The problem we have now is we don't get the chance to send two different messages. It's all the same message to Arizona and New York as to Syria and Jordan.''

On the Web:

Arab News

State Department's public diplomacy page

White House Office of Global Communications


World media report on the war

WASHINGTON - A look at how foreign outlets reported the Iraq war on Friday, the latest day available on the State Department's Office of Research at http://usinfo.state.gov/products/medreac.htm.

"Before the world, the Iraqis are proving that they fight and that they are able to inflict painful losses on the U.S. high-tech army. The current course of the war is bad luck for the Americans but also for the Arab world. U.S. President Bush must learn how everywhere in the Arab world, millions of people cheer at a man whom they hated a while ago.'' - DeutschlandRadio, Germany

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"Incredibly, the coalition, primarily the Americans, are losing war at the level of intelligence services. With a fiasco in assessing Iraq's military and political potential and in planning its own tactical operation, U.S. intelligence thought it best to blame the coalition's military setbacks on two Russian companies, one in Tula and the other near Moscow. This is more proof that the Pentagon's view of the situation in the area of the military conflict it started itself is rather distorted." - Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia

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"Currently, the people of Iraq, regardless of their being pro-Saddam or not, consider the US army as an invader. The psychology is much different from that of the days of Desert Storm. Iraqis were well aware of their mistake in invading Kuwait. Therefore, the Desert Storm operation did not experience any resistance on the Iraqi side. ... However, the situation is not the same at present. The U.S. seems to be fighting to capturing Iraq after toppling Saddam. The Iraqis are fighting against the power, who invades their motherland.`` - Sabah, Turkey

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"Unlike the predictions of American strategists, the Iraqis have not welcomed the GIs with dates and milk. Progress towards Baghdad will not be easy and taking the capital is no longer a certitude unless thousands of Iraqis are killed because they are accused of defending their country.'' - Liberte, Algeria

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"Iraq has seven million strong fighters who are ready to continue the fighting for thirteen years continuously. God be with them.'' - Al Akhbar, Egypt

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"Who are these civilians ... who planned the war on Iraq? First, let us begin with President Bush who never served in the army. Then Vice President Cheney, who also avoided service in the army during the sixties 'because he had other priorities.' '' - As-Safir, Lebanon

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"Bush and Blair's bloodthirsty forces are being trapped by Saddam's desert fox army at every battleground. A cruel death is awaiting them at every step. Cowboy Bush must now be thinking that snatching of oil wells from Iraq is not a piece of cake as he thought. Rather, he is sending his white-skinned children to hell like when a former U.S. leader sent countless GIs to death in Vietnam.'' - Naew Na, Thailand

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Source: State Department's Office of Research