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[] NYT 28.10.01: U.S. Appears to Be Losing Public Relations War So Far,

October 28, 2001

U.S. Appears to Be Losing Public Relations War So Far


CAIRO, Oct. 27 ? The Bush administration has belatedly deployed its forces for a propaganda war to win over the Arab public. But the campaign, intended to convince doubters that the American attacks on Afghanistan are justified and its Middle East policy is evenhanded, has so far proved ineffectual.

Thousands of words from American officials, it appears, have proved no match for the last week's news, which produced a barrage of pictures of wounded Afghan children and of Israeli tanks rolling into Palestinian villages. 

"Talking heads just can't compete with powerful images," a Western diplomat here said. "The images touch emotions, and people in this part of the world react according to their emotions."

Since the bombs started falling nearly three weeks ago, it has become obvious to people in Washington, as well as to many friendly Arab leaders, that President Bush's "war on terror" has an image problem outside the United States. 

The reasons for Arab skepticism may not be immediately apparent to many Americans who feel personally threatened by terror and are inundated with daily news about anthrax and young soldiers being sent to faraway places to fight terrorists.

But that sense of immediacy ? that terrorists threatening America are hiding out in Afghanistan ? is absent in the Middle East. While the anthrax story is widely reported in the Arab media and stories about Osama bin Laden's terror network appear frequently in newspapers here, news organizations in the Middle East have shifted much of their attention in the last two weeks to events in their own backyard. 

The front pages of newspapers in the region have been filled with reports on Israel's latest attacks on Palestinian towns. Funerals of Palestinians killed in clashes with Israel are the first item on television news programs. The images are taken directly from Western news agency reports. 

For the Bush administration's new public relations campaign to win over people in Arab nations, the renewed cycle of killing in Israel and the Palestinian territories came at an especially inauspicious time. 

Beginning 10 days ago, a parade of administration officials started appearing on Arabic television stations to explain the goals of American policy in the Middle East and the attacks on Afghanistan. 

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, have all been interviewed on Al Jazeera, the widely watched Arabic television station based in Qatar. State Department officials have appeared on state television in several countries, and interviews with other American diplomats have run in newspapers in the region.

The American views ? always avowing that the United States has nothing against Muslims or Islam ? have received prominent play. 

But in terms of content and impact, the interviews have often fallen flat. Ms. Rice, for instance, said several times in her interview that Palestinian violence had to end before Israel would consider reopening peace talks. Not long after the interview was aired, Al Jazeera viewers saw news reports of Israeli tanks rumbling into Palestinian towns.

"America has failed miserably in marketing their war to the Arabs," said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University. "How can they convince the Arabs of anything while Israel's American-made tanks are occupying the Palestinian territories?" 

American newspapers and magazines available in the Middle East do no better than the administration in explaining the war on terror to foreigners, he added. "They write about how right America is," he said. "They do not try at all to articulate the fundamental American thinking. All are writing the same thing: terrorists are Arab and Muslim, and the Arab regimes produce them."

The United States, of course, started off at a disadvantage in the propaganda war because its Middle East policy was seen as blindly pro-Israel, and Mr. Bush was seen as being uninterested in the plight of Palestinians under Israeli rule.

Battlefield information is also scarce. Al Jazeera is the only foreign television network with a bureau operating in Kabul. 

After nearly three weeks of watching television footage of American missiles streaking across the skies of Afghanistan and seeing newspaper photographs of Afghan civilians in bloody bandages, many Arabs remain skeptical about the war's aim.

The suspicion can be seen in the way news from the front has begun to be treated. 

Akhbar el Yom, one of Egypt's biggest newspapers, ran a wire service picture on the front page on Friday showing an Afghan child with wounds said to have been caused by the American bombing.

Inside the paper was another picture of an Afghan child whose family was reported to have been killed in by American bombing. The caption read, "Is this baby a Taliban fighter?"

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