The Rising East


Sunday, November 4, 2001

Words become weapons
in U.S. propaganda war
with al-Qaida

Ever since Johannes Gutenberg learned to move type in 1454, political leaders of every stripe have sought to use the press to persuade, cajole, threaten or instruct friend and foe alike. The same became true later with radio, then with television, and most recently with the Internet.

Today, those media have become weapons with which an information war rages between the United States and the terrorists of Afghanistan. This war of words and pictures runs parallel to the military war and is fought as intently as that with bombs and bullets to bend the will of both allies and enemies.

Some pundits have asserted recently that the United States was winning the information war while others have argued that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida band of thugs and Taliban allies are ahead. Truth be told, no one knows and probably won't until one side gives up.

Like the armed war, the information war is fought on many fronts. When President Bush or any other leader speaks in public, he must craft his words for diverse audiences, some receptive, others skeptical, still others antagonistic -- and he can't tailor his words for each audience because they all get the message at nearly the same time, given the speed and reach of communications today.

This is a daunting task, especially working through a free press that the government can't control. The American people, the Congress, the sprawling executive branch of government, the far flung armed forces, the embassies of 180 nations in Washington and their governments and publics back home, the Muslim world in all its complexity, bin Laden and the terrorists in whatever caves they have holed up -- all must be taken into account.

The president, of course, is commander-in-chief of the U.S. information campaign. The White House has let it be known that he will deliver several messages this coming week because he believes the U.S. has not fought the verbal battle well enough at home or abroad.

Much of the information campaign has been carried by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He has personally briefed the press almost every day rather than leave it to Pentagon spokesmen, which reflects the priority of the information campaign. He also makes regular rounds of the television news shows.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs, has shown himself to be particularly articulate and adept in saying just what he intends to say, no more, no less, about military operations. He has accompanied Rumsfeld to most of the press briefings.

Abroad, there's little evidence that the administration has been effective in the Muslim world, although there were a few encouraging signs last week. Anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan, for instance, seemed muted com- pared with those a week before mounted by supporters of bin Laden and the Taliban.

Perhaps the administration's biggest failure, asserted almost daily by skeptics and adversaries, has been proving that bin Laden masterminded the assaults of September 11. Instead of producing conclusive evidence, as did Ambassador Adlai Stevenson before the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Bush administration slipped out a less convincing document through Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.

On the other side, bin Laden's audiences are less diverse. He must keep in mind his al-Qaida followers and Taliban allies and Muslims from Indonesia to Morocco, some of whom applaud his cause and others who fear his terror. Much of his message is directed at Americans, whose angry response to September 11 and the threat of future he badly miscalculated.

Bin Laden's main weapon has been the al Jazeera TV news network that broadcasts 24 hours a day to an audience of 35 million throughout the Arab world. Al Jazeera, founded in 1996 in Qatar in the Persian Gulf, startled the Bush administration with its first broadcast of a vicious bin Laden tirade right after the United States started bombing Afghanistan.

The White House asked American networks not to air such broadcasts again, alleging that they might be conduits for messages to terrorists in the United States. Ironically, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, then jumped at chances to appear on al Jazeera to broadcast to the Muslim world.

Evidently, all's fair in both the shooting and the shouting wars.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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