Finally, the Bush Administration is getting serious about the fight for public opinion in the war on terrorism. To combat the Taliban's daily denunciations of the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan, the White House has set up a twenty-four-hour news bureau in Pakistan to issue a "message of the day." Top officials, after attempting to pressure Al Jazeera to tone down its anti-American programming, are now making themselves available to the news channel. Karl Rove, a senior political adviser to George W. Bush, has met with Hollywood executives to discuss how they can promote the US war effort. And most significant of all, the White House has hired Charlotte Beers, a former advertising executive who in the past helped market Uncle Ben's rice, to craft a multipronged PR campaign that, Administration officials feel confident, will help win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world.
The Administration's belated recognition of the importance of public opinion in its war effort is certainly commendable. Yet its new campaign seems likely to fall short. For in selling a product, the packaging can get you only so far; ultimately, it's the quality of the product that counts. And in this case the product, US policy, seems defective in several key respects.
For a sense of them, one need only consult the daily fare on Al Jazeera. First, the channel features much criticism of Washington's role in the Middle East, especially its support for repressive governments. Then there's the nightly footage of the US bombing raids over Afghanistan, with frequent images of civilians who've been injured or killed in them. Finally, there's the ongoing coverage of Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza, full of clips of Palestinian civilians–including many children–shot by Israeli soldiers.
The impact of the Palestinian issue, in particular, cannot be emphasized enough. Earlier this year, Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, commissioned a survey of public opinion in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Lebanon. Most of those polled ranked the Palestinian issue as the most important one for them personally. Of course, some argue that to take up that issue would be to reward terrorism, but that's not a reason to avoid what we should have been doing anyway.
If the White House really wants to make headway in its battle for public opinion, it would appoint not Charlotte Beers but a new special envoy to the Middle East whose main task would be to press the two sides to resume negotiations. To fully capitalize, the Administration would assign a camera crew to shadow the envoy on his trips to the region, and it would make the resulting footage immediately available to Al Jazeera and other Arab outlets. To help out, Bush would make frequent statements about the need for both sides in the conflict to put aside their differences and work toward an agreement. And, while he was at it, the President would make clear America's determination to develop a plan to help the nations of the Middle East overcome the political stultification and economic backwardness that have made life so wretched for so many.
Bush actually had a prime opportunity to do that on November 10, when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly. With dozens of world leaders present, the President spent most of his twenty-two-minute speech reiterating his familiar message about the evils of terrorism and the urgent need to fight it. Only briefly did he refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and while he committed his Administration to "working toward the day when two states–Israel and Palestine–live peacefully together within secure and recognized borders," he also warned against those "trying to pick and choose…terrorist friends"–a clear reference, as Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post, to "his calls for a Palestinian rejection of anti-Israel militants."
As DeYoung further reported, some delegates questioned Bush's decision to focus almost entirely on the fight against terrorism, "largely ignoring the issues of poverty and underdevelopment that are their biggest concern." While all the other leaders who addressed the assembly condemned the September 11 attacks, most "spent major portions of their speeches calling for action on other world problems." Several times during the President's speech, DeYoung added, he appeared to pause for a reaction, but there was none; only when he finished did the delegates applaud, and then only "politely."
Isn't it comforting to know that Charlotte Beers is hard at work on the case?