Uncle Ben Goes to War

By Massing, Michael | The Nation, December 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Uncle Ben Goes to War


Massing, Michael, The Nation


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.

Right.

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.

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