In war of words, US lags behind

From food aid to news interviews, US steps up 'public diplomacy' in Mideast.

CORRECTION: A widely circulated poll on Pakistani opinion attributed to "Gallup" turns out not to have been conducted by the American public opinion survey company, The Gallup Organization. The poll, which was conducted by the unaffiliated "Gallup Pakistan" group and showed overwhelming Pakistani sympathy for the Taliban, was published in the Monitor. The US company questions the Pakistani group's polling methods and results, saying that rural Pakistan - 83 percent of the country's citizenry - was not included in the survey. END CORRECTION.

In a tacit acknowledgment that it is far behind in the propaganda war, the Bush administration is stepping up efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

Whether by dropping leaflets in Afghanistan or appearing on the Arab news network Al Jazeera, US officials are now seeing the war of words as a crucial part of the antiterrorism effort - especially given the magnetic draw of Osama bin Laden among many Muslims.

"We have to do a better job" getting the US message out, says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was to be interviewed by Al Jazeera yesterday. He followed National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who on Monday told the network that "our war on terrorism is not a war against Islam."

Yet former diplomats, Arab experts, and even administration officials consider the job of "public diplomacy" truly daunting.

Years of shrinking budgets and neglect have allowed deep mistrust and resentment of the US to take root, they say.

That resentment is borne out in anti-American demonstrations in Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan.

"We've been totally out of the game for many years as far as making much of an impact on Middle East opinion," says Sam Lewis, US ambassador to Israel in the Carter and Reagan administrations. "We've never gotten past the elites," he says, adding, "I'm not terribly optimistic that you can do a whole lot about this, because the cultural gaps are so huge."

Additionally, anti-American feelings are not purely the result of misunderstanding "how good we are," as President Bush said in his press conference last week. They also spring from a conviction that US policies in the Middle East are wrong.

The administration has made it clear that it has no intention of changing its policies, but even if it simply wants to explain them better - as officials say they do - that will not be easy.

"There's so much mistrust connected with policy that clearly it's hard to persuade people unless something a little more than just a public-relations campaign is done," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland in College Park.

So far, the administration is fighting the war of perceptions on multiple fronts.

In Afghanistan, US military planes began leaflet drops Sunday. As part of the Pentagon's "psychological operations," or PSYOPS, the leaflets underscored the Bush administration's message of friendship with the Afghan people and directed the local population to tune into US-run radio broadcasts.

One leaflet shows a man in native Afghan clothing shaking hands with a Western soldier, under the words, "The partnership of nations is here to help."

Broadcasts into Afghanistan by Commando Solo, the EC-130 planes of the US Army's Special Operations Forces, began a day after airstrikes started. They use both shortwave and AM frequencies, rebroadcasting Voice of America (VOA) for about five hours each morning and evening.

Furthermore, a US bill to set up "Radio Free Afghanistan" has widespread support among congressional leaders. It would be operated by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which ran an Afghanistan program in the 1980s but discontinued it.

VOA spokeswoman Letitia King says VOA plans to expand broadcasts in Afghanistan, where research from 1999 and 2000 shows that 70 percent of adult Afghan males tune in daily. But others say the charismatic pull of Osama bin Laden and his message of holy war have had a mesmerizing effect.

"The president is doing a great job on the domestic front, but from everything I see, Osama bin Laden is winning in the Middle East," says a former US Army special operations colonel, commenting on the PSYOPS war.

While administration officials are appearing on Al Jazeera, they are also trying to beef up their own broadcasting network in the region. VOA, criticized by its governing board for having little impact in the Middle East, seeks funds to double its Arabic shortwave programming from the current nine to 18 hours a day.

In addition, VOA has asked for a 2002 budget increase of $30 million to launch a new Middle East Network, a 24-hour service on FM and AM frequencies aimed at younger Arabs. The plan has passed the House but not the Senate.

At the same time, the State Department is asking for a budget increase of 6.8 percent to beef up its "public diplomacy" work and add 55 positions. The area experienced major cutbacks in the 1980s and '90s, including the elimination of the US Information Agency.

On the humanitarian front, US cargo planes have dropped about 275,000 food packets in Afghanistan since military strikes began. Mr. Bush has also kicked off a fundraising drive similar to the 1938 March of Dimes campaign, in which he's asking every American child to send $1 to the White House to help Afghan children.

But Bush needs to run "a more believable" humanitarian campaign, says Arab expert Michael Hudson at Georgetown University. "It has to be a lot more than dropping a few pallets from an airplane."

Mr. Hudson says it's possible to go substantively beyond the administration's messages without turning US policy on its head. Washington, he says, has to significantly step up its efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Others say it also needs to develop an economic-assistance package for the region.

"Significant things can be done," says Hudson, "that do not require a 180-degree turn in policy."

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