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War within the war: shaping perceptions

How conflict is viewed will influence larger outcome.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Nicole GaouetteStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 2003



WASHINGTON

However fierce the fighting on the ground turns out to be, another war is under way that may end up being just as important to the ultimate outcome of a conflict in Iraq: the war of perceptions.

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Whether the war is seen as one of liberation and international security, or of imperialist occupation and part of a crusade against Islam, will go a long way in shaping global security, international relations, and perceptions of the US for years to come.

For President Bush, this is the first war of the 21st century. Rather than a defensive fight against a declared foe typical of past wars, this one is against a gathering threat. But it is as much about winning the world over to a way of perceiving global security as it is about disarmament or regime change.

In the short term, this war of perceptions will determine which side in the long diplomatic debate over Iraq is judged to have been right. Long term, it could reverse - or cement - America's deteriorating image around the globe, with heavy implications for the war on terrorism

Depending on the way the Islamic world and Arab countries in particular react, the threat of a "clash of civilizations" that has lingered since the Sept. 11 attacks could either dissipate - or find new life.

"Earlier wars were state against state. The connection between one side and the people of the other or the rest of the world was largely nonexistent - but that has changed," says David Davenport, a diplomacy and foreign policy analyst at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

A number of benchmarks will be key in determining the outcome of this battle of perceptions, experts say:

• Casualties, especially among Iraq's civilian and Muslim population, which could enrage Arab populations. Heavy casualties among US forces, meanwhile, could erode US support for the war.

• Chemical and biological weapons. First, whether or not Saddam Hussein uses them; and then, whether or not large caches of them are discovered. Either one could bolster the perception that Hussein is as dangerous as the US has claimed.

• Iraq's oil wealth. In the short term, whether or not Hussein torches oil wells, which would fuel his negative image in the world; and longer term, how Iraq's vast oil wealth is administered - in other words, how the antiwar argument that this is a war about oil stands up.

• The length of the war. A short war would bolster support for the American intervention. But some critics of the Bush doctrine of preventative war fear that "success" in Iraq would encourage the US to resort more quickly to the use of force in other conflicts.

• The Iraqi population's response to an American invasion.

"No one factor will determine how this war is viewed and what its long-term impact will be. It will be a cumulative effect from many things happening at once," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"If the war doesn't go well, casualties are high, and the US doesn't come up with [the] large stores of weapons of mass destruction it has said are there, perceptions [will] turn against the US. But if the war ends quickly, with WMDs found and a connection to terrorist organizations on top of that, and the Iraqi people show enthusiasm for working with the Americans on building a democracy, then the cumulative impact [will be] very different."

Starting from behind

One challenge for the US is that negative opinion around much of the globe - and the fact the US is seen as having lost the battle of persuasion at the United Nations - means it starts with a deep deficit to make up, experts say.

"The Bush administration has done such a terrible job of explaining why this has to be done, they've flitted around from one reason to another, [so] it's going to take a while to chip away the skepticism no matter what happens," says Richard Stoll, a foreign-policy expert at Rice University in Houston.

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