"Don't worry. You'll be safe. We know how to take care of terrorists here."
So said the chuckling immigration officer at Port of Spain the other day. I had been dispatched to Trinidad by the U.S. State Department to conduct a two-day seminar on investigative reporting for local journalists (your tax dollars at work!), and the first Trini I encountered could not resist needling the Americans.
The next day, amid talk of the Freedom of Information Act, finding sources, and Internet-assisted-reporting, one of the fifteen island journalists asked me and my colleague, Bonnie Goldstein, a former investigative producer for ABC News, what we thought of the U.S. media's coverage of the September 11 attacks. Before we could respond, several participants volunteered their opinions.
"The first day was fine, then it was too much, too much."
"It was, 'oh, poor, poor us.'"
"Like the United States was the only country ever to be hit by terrorism."
"Self-pity, plenty of self-pity."
A consensus formed: a self-indulgent America was excessively obsessed with its own suffering.
And this was coming from our friends -- reporters who live in a city overflowing with KFC restaurants and who had, on their own accord, come to the information office of the U.S. embassy desperately seeking pointers from American journalists. They were not insensitive to the horror of September 11, but neither were they overly sympathetic to America's pain and fear or deferential to U.S. concerns.
This exchange might have served as a focus group for the White House, as Bush presses his (latest) new initiative to sell overseas the war against terrorism. After a month of bombing, the Administration seemed to conclude it was, as the media cliche went, "losing the PR battle." The Bush White House was not admitting this in public. But others were saying so. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told a newspaper he saw "danger signs" the West was falling behind in this part of the struggle. Various commentators issued similar warnings. The war-worriers cried that Bush was not only losing ground in the Muslim world but that he also was slipping in Europe.
Bush's actions showed he agreed. In speeches he started comparing the Taliban and al Qaeda -- the "evildoers" -- to the "fascist totalitarians" of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The goal was, as several White House reporters put it, to "demonize" Osama bin Laden. Bush opened rapid-response centers in Washington, London and Pakistan to counter Taliban reports. He sent Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, to Hollywood to take a meeting with studio execs and discuss what the flix-folks can do to bolster America's wartime image. And he hired Charlotte Beers, an advertising honcho once dubbed the Queen of Madison Avenue, to pull together a message operation to pitch the war -- partly via a television and advertising campaign to influence Islamic opinion.
Beers, famous within advertising circles for having handled the Uncle Ben's rice account, serves as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She told Andrea Mitchell, "I dislike that phrase selling because that's way too arrogant for where we are now. I think the best we can do is open a dialogue of mutual respect and understanding. I'd actually be very satisfied with that."
A dialogue? That's not a very high standard for an ad exec. In another interview, she noted, "What we haven't felt the need to communicate is what is the value system [of the United States] ... What are our beliefs? What do the words 'freedom' and 'tolerance' mean? We are having people who are not our friends define America in negative terms. It is time for us to reignite the understanding of America."
In other words, people elsewhere have America pegged wrong. And that is the fault of the foes of the United States. What does the Administration have in mind to turn this situation around? A Bombing for Tolerance campaign? Ads with Michael Jordan attesting to the goodness of America? (The slogan: "Be like us.") Will Bush intensify Operation Demonization and start referring to bin Laden as the anti-Christ? Movies that show Middle Eastern terrorists plotting mass murder against the decent civilians of the West? (That base has been covered.)
This is not to make light of the seriousness of the massacre committed on September 11 by people who are indeed evil or to diminish the threat of further violence that still exists. But talk of reselling the war kicks up a question Bush and his advisers have not addressed in public: why have they had such a tough time closing the sale?
Bush could not have had an easier set-up. A villain out of a James Bond film unleashes murder and mayhem against thousands of civilians -- including many from countries other than the United States. He essentially acknowledges his culpability and threatens more of the same. He calls for uprisings against various Arab states. He is protected by a regime of totalitarian, misogynistic, extremists who maintain official relations with only three other nations in the world.
How could Bush be outflanked by this foul individual? How much more can bin Laden be demonized? (He's Lucifer and he has nuclear weapons!) Shouldn't a just war, a good war, be largely self-evident? No spinning required? In recent days, pundits, commentators, and administration officials (the latter speaking off the record) have asserted that Washington needs to find and promote Islamic voices that can present the case for the war. As former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke said, "We need to use authentic and credible Muslims, clerics and religious leaders and political speakers ... speaking in their own terms, not just President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, to make clear to the people in the Middle East and the whole Muslim world ... to make clear to them what's going on." But this advice ignores a sad reality: such persons have not felt compelled to spout ringing endorsements of Bush's war. What might be the reasons for this?
Here's a partial answer with two pieces: throughout much of the world, America has no credit to draw upon, and, beyond that, Bush has so bungled the meta-framework of this war that PR efforts may be useless at this point. When you're the only superpower left standing, large portions of the rest of the world may feel resentment and not possess a charitable attitude toward you. But the United States's decision to share only a meager slice of its tremendous wealth with other nations, its my-way-or-the-highway approach to certain international matters, its rapacious consumption of a disproportionate amount of global resources (see SUVs), its occasional heavy-handed interventions on behalf of less-than-exemplary regimes -- all of this has left it little good will in the bank of international sentiment. It rescued Europe six decades ago. But there's been a lot of oil under the bridge since then.
Among my new friends in Trinidad, I sensed a bit of satisfaction that America received a dose of comeuppance. We're sorry, of course we are, yes, but why did you believe you were entitled to protection from the dangers of the world order that you have helped shape, that you benefit from so greatly, and that you claim to lead? So when the United States requests help from others, many are not eager to fall in.
Moreover, Bush has presented his war in a manner that exacerbates rather than ameliorates ambivalence (or antagonism) toward America. He and his aides keep saying either you're with us or against us. In other parts of the world, this sort of talk might sound bullying, which can reinforce perceptions of U.S. arrogance. The notion that the United States is fighting for freedom, as Bush continually insists, ought to come across as laughable to anyone abroad with a sense of history. Washington has a long record of supporting governments that opposed freedom (Chile, Argentina, the Philippines, Cuba, Nicaragua, South Africa, Greece, Iran, among others). Now it makes common cause with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, nations that do not offer freedom to all their citizens. And it maintains a close relationship with Israel, which denies freedoms to non-Jews within its borders. The United States is not fighting for freedom. It is not fighting for tolerance. (If so, it would send troops into Saudi Arabia). It is fighting to protect itself and to destroy a small group of barbaric individuals who also threaten other nations. That's not a minor thing. But a honest depiction of what was under way might carry more resonance than the phony rhetoric Bush pushes -- and which will be enshrined in sophisticated, celebrity-laden commercials.
As for the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, they indeed are a PR nightmare, and they should be. But is it possible that civilian deaths are even more upsetting when they occur under a false flag?
The problem is not just message. It's deeds -- past and present. This is hardly a radical view. As the subversive Wall Street Journal reported this past week, the Administration's call "for a united front against terrorism" is "gaining little credence" in the Muslim world because U.S. policies "are perceived as biased" and "anger at America serves as a lightning rod for social, economic and political dissatisfaction." The paper quoted a diplomat from a pro-U.S. country, who observed, "So far, the United States is treating this as an advertising and public-relations campaign. To capture the hearts and minds of people, one has to tackle those issues closest to their heart. The U.S. has to convince people of the integrity and fairness of its policies." The diplomat noted that "the kinds of things Arabs and Muslims are looking for" include "a demonstrated willingness to pressure Israel to moderate its policies toward the Palestinians ... and a policy toward Iraq that targets" Saddam Hussein "without penalizing the Iraqi people."
Holbrooke gripes that "our message isn't getting through because we have bad messages and bad messengers." No doubt. Yet how effective can the policy be, if it is so difficult to explain?
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation