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War within the war: shaping perceptions

How conflict is viewed will influence larger outcome.

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"What happens in Iraq may be less important in the court of world opinion than how we got there," adds Mr. Davenport.

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Such thinking is even stronger around the world, especially in the war region. "It doesn't matter what [the Americans] do," says Taher Masri, a former prime minister of Jordan. "The American insistence to go to war without the support of the [UN] Security Council, the firepower they will use against the Iraqi people, and the long-range effect of such a war make us terribly worried. They are opening a Pandora's box." Even as the United States claims that some 30 countries and counting are part of its "coalition of the willing," global surveys continue to show negative and even deteriorating perceptions of the US.

In a new nine-country poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington, "positive" views of the US sank to 12 percent in Turkey and to 48 percent in Britain.

But the Pew survey also found something else: an open-mindedness about what good might come from disarming Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power, even in strongly antiwar countries like Germany. "Success in these areas will go part of the way in repairing relations and addressing the very low image numbers," says Pew director Andrew Kohut, "but the way the US dealt with the UN is still going to keep the world focused on the way the US wields its power."

Early signals are already emerging of how what happens on the battlefield might affect shifting perceptions of the war. For example, France, which blocked UN authorization, now says it could join the fight if Hussein uses chemical weapons.

But even more than in Europe the US is clearly set on altering perceptions in the Middle East - a challenging job.

One of the first campaigns of the war will be for the southern city of Basra, where military officials have said they hope to beam images of cheering crowds to the watching world. Scenes of success will undermine Iraqi troops, the officials say, bolster the US and Britain against any later pitfalls, and defuse international criticism.

Growing anger in Middle East

That may work in other regions, but it won't fly in the Middle East, says Cairo Times publisher Hisham Kassem.

Mr. Kassem admits he thinks US involvement in regime change will ultimately be positive, but says his viewpoint is not common and describes a growing, media-driven anger at the US mission in Iraq. "The Egyptian media is controlled by the government, which is threatened by the idea of regime change," explains Kassem. "So the media has not in any way been friendly to this military offensive."

Syrian analyst Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a professor at Damascus University, says the anger stems from a feeling that the US is attacking the region, not just one country.

"We cannot speak about Iraq only," he says. "It is only a theater of operation. They are going to invade our people."

But just as the Pew poll finds a basis for the US to begin winning over world opinion, other Middle East analysts say openings exist in the Arab world as well. For one thing, says Mr. Clawson, sympathy is particularly low for Hussein. "A lot of people know a lot more today about Saddam Hussein, so the support you had [during the Gulf war] just isn't there."

For many observers, the intense feelings - and suspicions - about the US and its intentions mean the "winner" of the perceptions war won't be determined until well after the last bomb of the hot war falls.

"There will be huge relief in Iraq and the sense of a job well done if they get rid of Saddam Hussein," says Charles Tripp, an Iraqi-history expert at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "But it doesn't mean that people will be grateful to America. That will largely depend on what happens in the months afterward."