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[] USA Today 16.10.01: U.S. Message Is Difficult To Deliver,
USA Today
October 16, 2001

U.S. Message Is Difficult To Deliver

By Barbara Slavin, USA Today

Nine days after bombs began to fall on Afghanistan, U.S. officials concede that they have to do a better job if they hope to win the war for the hearts and minds of the world's 1 billion Muslims. U.S. forces have dropped food over Afghanistan and began distributing propaganda leaflets there this past weekend. Meanwhile, top U.S. officials are lining up for interviews with Arab media they once ignored. But the PR offensive hasn't been able to overcome long-standing grievances in the Muslim world.

"There is no question but that we have a job to do," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday. He added that U.S. forces had dropped 275,000 food packages over Afghanistan since Oct. 7.

Rumsfeld also released English translations of two leaflets being distributed over Afghanistan.

As part of a U.S. effort to reach a larger Muslim audience, White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice gave an interview Monday to Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based satellite TV channel available in 21 Arab countries. Her message: "Our war on terrorism is not a war against Islam. ... It is a war against evil people who would hijack the Palestinian cause."

Secretary of State Colin Powell gave Al Jazeera an interview last week, and the State Department is considering buying ads on the station.

Before last month's terrorist attacks, resources devoted to polishing the United States' image abroad had been declining for years. The U.S. Information Agency, which used to market U.S. views abroad aggressively during the Cold War, was folded into the State Department in 1999 and lost money and clout as an independent body.

The problem, experts say, is not just the lack of messengers, but also the message itself.

"Only a small minority of Muslims hates the United States," says Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "But a majority feels some combination of anger, frustration and bitter disappointment at U.S. policies toward the Middle East, especially in the last year."

In tapes sent to Al Jazeera, Osama bin Laden and his spokesmen have exploited the reasons behind the anti-U.S. sentiment:

? U.S. support for Israel and failure to broker an end to a year of clashes that have killed more than 800 people, mostly Palestinians.

? More than 11 years of economic sanctions against Iraq.

? Backing for repressive governments in much of the Arab world, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia.

Jon Alterman, an Arab media expert at the United States Institute of Peace, says America "has become a symbol of the status quo and those who benefit from the status quo" in countries with growing gaps between rich and poor and no outlet for dissent.

Reversing that negative image without changing the underlying policies will be difficult. The Arabic service of the government-funded Voice of America has an audience of, at most, 2% of Arabs, U.S. officials say. The VOA's Afghan service is more widely heard.

But credibility has been undercut by reports of civilian casualties from U.S. attacks. On Sunday, Taliban officials escorted U.S. reporters to an Afghan village where, the Taliban said, U.S. strikes had killed 200 people. Rumsfeld called the casualty figure "ridiculous" and confirmed only eight civilian deaths since U.S. strikes began.

The U.S. food drops do not appear to be having the desired effect. Relief officials say many of the military rations are landing in minefields. Others are being collected by soldiers or traders, who sell the pouches.

Afghans also are suspicious of goods falling from the sky. During their war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Soviet troops dropped booby-trapped toys and other shiny objects around the countryside, a Washington-based Asian diplomat said. Children would pick them up and have their hands and arms blown off.

"We know there have been all kinds of rumors circulating in Afghanistan," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters last week. "One was that we drop food and then bomb people afterwards; that's totally false. One was that the food was somehow poisoned; that's totally false. So there have been a variety of very nasty and very untrue rumors circulated."

Edward Rouse, a former psychological operations officer for the Army, says U.S. forces should send different messages to different audiences: "We have to convince the general population they are not the targets and tell the terrorists, 'We're coming to get you.' "

Kenton Keith, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, says the United States must spend more on promoting its message, and not just in times of crisis. "There are still people who think America's story tells itself," he says. "Just because we believe so strongly in our system and values doesn't mean they will be easy to explain."

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