Bad Moves in the War of Words
By Richard S. Dunham
The War, Week One: Pentagon video shows U.S. bombs destroying military barracks, airfields, and terrorist camps. Television also shows humanitarian airdrops of food to desperate Afghan refugees. With a mission success rate of 85%, American officials predict a quick demise for the Taliban regime.
The War, Week Three: The nation is fixated on what appears to be a spreading anthrax problem along the East Coast. There are runs on antibiotics in New York and Washington and a wave of panic among postal workers. Meanwhile, the TV images from Afghanistan beam a downbeat message: Children wounded by American bombs, errant attacks in residential areas, defiant Afghans waving their weapons. A senior American military official says he's "a bit surprised" at how "doggedly" the Taliban has fought back.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for anti-Taliban forces complains that U.S. attacks on Taliban front lines have been too weak to make a difference. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld frets that the U.S. might never catch Osama bin Laden. And on Oct. 26, the Taliban claims to have killed the most renowned opposition commander, Abdul Haq.
Has victory turned quickly into defeat? Not at all. There was no "victory" in mid-October, nor defeat at month's end. But in this 24-hour news cycle, the media is demanding a day-by-day score of "who won the war."
And that score isn't tallied by Tomahawk missiles launched or cluster bombs dropped. It's a propaganda tally: Whether the images beamed into homes in America, Europe, and the Islamic crescent from West Africa to Southeast Asia help or hinder the U.S.-led war on terrorism. On that count, the Bush Administration is faring poorly. And many of the wounds are self-inflicted. Here's why:
From the very beginning, the White House decided that it would exert tight control over information -- whether concerning military operations in Asia or the latest details on anthrax contamination. Some of these curbs made sense: The media should not put the lives of American military personnel at risk by publicizing the whereabouts or timing of their operations.
Team Bush went way overboard, however. Despite the pleas of Muslim nations, they wouldn't release information linking bin Laden's network to the September 11 attacks, claiming that would jeopardize intelligence sources. That didn't seem to bother the Brits. Prime Minister Tony Blair later issued a detailed description of al Qaeda's web of terror. To the rest of the world, the White House's worries seemed unfounded.
A continuing problem for the Administration is combat coverage. Unlike past wars, the Pentagon has kept virtually all military personnel off-limits to reporters. Military briefings have been nearly "content free" -- just a few soundbites to feed the 24/7 TV beast. Reporters are being treated like enemies, not a trusted part of the American information-gathering "team," as in past wars.
That system has worked before. Yes, this is a different kind of war. But that's no reason to shut the public out. The Administration would be far better served with more TV video of U.S. soldiers repeating the company line instead of talking heads fretting about defeat.
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The consequence of the Bush Administration's information-control strategy has been that America's enemies have set the tone for media coverage. Bin Laden struck first with a rambling videotape condemning the U.S. and promising to wreak further havoc. Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice convinced American TV networks to refuse to air future al Qaeda messages unedited.
Bin Laden is reaching an Islamic audience through al-Jazeera, the Islamic world's version of CNN. And the White House hasn't been able to prevent the broadcast of video showing the innocent victims of -- and collateral damage from -- the American bombing campaign.
Because the American government has refused to comment on virtually every development on the ground in Afghanistan, the information has seeped back into the U.S. from other sources -- sometimes from American reporters on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. Sometimes from unreliable media reports from Turkey, Britain, and Pakistan, as well as notoriously unreliable Taliban propaganda.
Meanwhile, al-Jazeera has provided the most comprehensive and compelling video evidence from behind enemy lines. Without a change in the American war for world opinion, the buttoned-lipped briefers at the Pentagon will remain on the defensive.
With winter descending soon on Afghanistan and the Muslim holy time of Ramadan starting in just two weeks, more problems loom on the horizon. Already, Islamic nations are protesting Bush's insistence that military action will continue through November, the holiest month of the year for Muslims. And American pundits already are declaring that some quantifiable victory -- say the capture of the Afghan capital of Kabul or the demise of top Taliban leader Mullah Omar -- is needed before the onset of the brutal winter season.
The Bush Administration is fully aware it has a PR problem. Pentagon boss Rumsfeld himself admitted on Oct. 25 that he's not the smoothest talker. "From time to time, I suppose things come out of my mouth not quite the right way," he acknowledged.
Perhaps that won't matter over the long run. Maybe Rumsfeld & Co. have thought their strategy through more fully than it appears right now. They may be prepared to let their images be battered in the short-run for the more important long-term military objectives: overthrow of the Taliban, destruction of al Qaeda, and the "neutralizing" of bin Laden.
Still, President Bush has to be concerned about the collateral damage that could occur if the public's resolute support for the war effort weakens. In this case, it's possible that tight lips could sink ships, too.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht