Allies' PR war targets Arab street

Tony Blair kicks off effort to paint Saddam as bad guy – and win 'hearts and minds.'

For almost a year, US officials beginning with President Bush have said one of the key pieces of the international war on terrorism is the battle for the "hearts and minds" of the Muslim world.

Now with the US on a course toward war with Iraq, that battle is about to begin in earnest.

The public relations offensive kicks off today as British Prime Minister Tony Blair releases a white paper detailing the offenses of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The dossier, which Mr. Blair's office says will "nail the lie" that Iraq is not an imminent danger to the world, mirrors a British PR campaign against the Taliban that was launched last year prior to the war in Afghanistan.

The United States will follow Blair's actions with a stepped-up campaign to convince Arab and Muslim populations that the Iraqi leader is the bad guy in the fight.

The message to the Arab street will detail everything from Mr. Hussein's weapons programs to his fondness for erecting statues of himself. It will also emphasize that the US goal is really a more prosperous and democratic future for the region.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing this hurry-up campaign is not so much its own composition as its starting point. The US has arguably neglected public diplomacy in this part of the world for years – and many Arab populations have developed negative views of the US due, among other things, to its stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and suspicions that America is simply an oil-thirsty giant looking to secure its supplies.

"No doubt we'll see a significant public-diplomacy effort to tell our side of the story of this conflict with Iraq," says Dan Kuehl, a specialist in information warfare at the National Defense University in Washington. But, he warns, "This isn't something you'll be able to pull off in two months."

Cost to war with Iraq

Some observers also worry that attacking Iraq will set back the broader public opinion battle. "If we end up going to war with Iraq we will do so at a grave disadvantage in terms of our image and perception in the region, primarily because we have done so little to explain ourselves and build any trust," says Charles Freeman, US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.

But there are signs the US realizes it needs to do more. It has dramatically stepped up so-called "public diplomacy" – efforts to explain policies to foreign populations and to win adherents to the values behind them – since last year's terrorist attacks.

Congress has approved hundreds of millions of additional public diplomacy dollars.

And the White House is about to announce a new office to raise the effort's profile and coordinate the US message and operations among offices spread from the State Department to the Pentagon.

To be effective, this must be a long-term campaign – one that's similar to America's cold-war-era efforts, which included Radio Free Europe, experts say.

And what ultimately works is emphasizing the values and accomplishments that are the basis for the deep reservoir of admiration that many Arabs and Muslims feel towards America.

Selling the American dream

"The hundreds of thousands of Arabs who have immigrated – and done well here – have come seeking after the very things they admired about this country before they came," says Harold Pachios, chairman of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which advises US officials on public diplomacy. "That's the product. We just don't do a very good of selling it, and that's what has to change."

One thing officials agree on is that while public diplomacy can explain US policy to foreign audiences, its purpose is not to alter that policy.

"It's not the role of those of us involved in public diplomacy to change the policies, but it is our job to enunciate how policy is arrived at democratically, with transparency, and with an underlying attention to furthering human decency," says Tucker Eskew, deputy assistant to the president in the White House Office of Global Communications. "We can explain what the policy is and how it reflects basic American values."

Adds Christopher Ross, special assistant to Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, "Our first responsibility is to make sure people understand our policy for what it is, not what others say it is."

That may sound straightforward enough, but as Ms. Beers told an audience at the National War College last week, bridging the cultural divide is often complicated. Varying cultural perceptions and life experiences mean policies and messages can mean very different things to different people.

She cited a prototype antiterrorism campaign ad that some American officials thought very effective: a picture of an average man accompanied by his life expectancy, alongside the picture of a terrorist, with less than half the average man's life expectancy.

But the ad didn't have the same impact in test audiences of young Muslim males, and it was scuttled.

"You have to be careful that you're speaking to the conscience and values of the people you're trying to persuade, but we're just not there yet," says Ambassador Freeman, who is now president of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington.

Compared to a decade ago, Freeman says that one critical difference for the US in any war against Iraq will be how it will have to work alone in the Muslim world to explain its cause.

Prior to the Gulf war "the Saudis made a significant and effective contribution to the public diplomacy effort, explaining to the Muslim world why intervention by the US was justified," he says. "You don't have any of that this time."

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