The War for Muslim Hearts and Minds

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Working the PR front: Rice is interviewed on al-Jazeera television

Washington may not be able to find Osama bin Laden on the ground in Afghanistan, but it was able, last weekend, to ambush him on the airwaves. Soon after Qatar's al-Jezeera TV broadcast the latest propaganda tirade from the Saudi terrorist on Saturday, the channel's pan-Arab audience was treated to a surprise live American rebuttal — delivered, like bin Laden's own rant, in fluent Arabic. The U.S. had introduced a new "secret weapon" to the propaganda war: Christopher Ross, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and State Department counter-terrorism coordinator, brought out of mothballs for his considerable experience and powers of persuasion in the Arab world.

Ambassador to al-Jazeera

It may not look as dramatic as a new special forces raid or a "daisy cutter" bomb falling on the Taliban lines, but Ross's deployment may prove equally important in winning the war on terrorism. Beating al-Qaeda depends in large part on the active cooperation of Arab and Muslim allies, because only when bin Laden is isolated in the Arab and Muslim world does he become ineffective. Ross is only one small part of the puzzle, of course — in recent days the Bush administration has dispatched Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld to buck up U.S. allies, named an ambassador to the Northern Alliance, appointed advertising supremo Charlotte Beers (whose resume includes stellar campaigns for Head and Shoulders shampoo and Uncle Ben's Rice) as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy to sell the American point of view, and announced that the President would make his case for a continued war in Afghanistan in a nationally televised address Thursday. But Ross's fluency in Arabic is a tremendous asset in making the case to middle-class Muslims and countering bin Laden's adept exploitation of anti-American grievances in the Muslim world.

During more than 30-years of diplomatic service, Ross had played a leading role in formulating Middle East policy in various administrations, and had also represented the U.S. in Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Libya. Fluent in Arabic, he'd actually taught the language at Columbia University before entering the foreign service. And it may take a spokesman with his deep appreciation of the nuances of Arab politics — and language —to help reverse the tide of Arab sentiment against the U.S. five weeks into the Afghan bombing campaign.

Anecdotal reports from the region suggest Ross's rebuttal went over well with middle-class Arab audiences. It was helped, no doubt, by the fact that bin Laden had lashed out intemperately at moderate Arab regimes and at the United Nations. Calling Kofi Annan a "criminal," to take just one example, sounds deranged, even to anti-Western firebrands in the developing world. The terrorist, whose propaganda broadcast when the U.S. bombing began had been a home-run in the Arab world, now sounded almost incoherent, teeing himself up for Ross to calmly point out bin Laden's political isolation. Even the Taliban seemed at odds with his message, appealing to the U.N. for humanitarian help two days after their guest warned that those who turned to the international body for help in achieving Mideast peace were "infidels."

At war for hearts and minds

The deployment of a suave and sensitive spokesman, together with the creation of rapid-response information centers in Washington, London and Islamabad, suggests Washington is digging in for a protracted propaganda war alongside the real conflict on the ground. Having Ross address Arab concerns in Arabic is a good start, and it certainly beats having Tony Blair and George Bush pronouncing on who is and who isn't being true to Islam — why, after all, would anyone in the Muslim world take their word for it? It's certainly necessary in a war in which the Taliban starts each day's news cycle with an afternoon press conference at its embassy in Islamabad denouncing the latest U.S. raids — press conferences that despite their often outlandish pronouncements still capture the front pages of many Arab and Muslim world papers.

Ross's apid-fire real-time Arabic response — he was interviewed live within two hours of Bin Laden's broadcast — certainly gives bin Laden and the Taliban a run for their PR money. But Ross has his work cut out for him, because deep-seated anti-American feeling on the Arab streets nurtured by perceptions of U.S. culpability in the plight of the Iraqis and Palestinians has seeded the propaganda playing field in bin Laden's favor. It will take a Herculean spin effort to convince al-Jazeera viewers that Osama bin Laden is the reason for the suffering of the civilian casualties whose images dominate Arab media coverage of the war in Afghanistan. It appears that even those hostile to bin Laden may be growing increasingly wary of the U.S. bombing campaign.

America's greatest weakness

Bin Laden's war, of course, is all about propaganda — the September 11 attacks were not designed to weaken his enemy's military capacity, but to send a message to potential supporters in the Arab world that the most powerful nation on earth is vulnerable. Bin Laden has always believed that a showdown between Islam and the West is inevitable, and the strikes were also calculated to provoke a retaliation that could be painted as an attack on Islam. And despite the strenuous efforts by Bush and Blair to dispel such fears, the danger is that images of civilian suffering in Afghanistan might turn Arab and Muslim public opinion increasingly against the U.S. campaign.

And here, the Bush administration confronts its greatest weakness in the current battle — the absence of Muslim allies whose support is anything more than lukewarm. They may be prepared to offer military bases and indispensable intelligence cooperation, but most have been ambiguous in the support of the U.S. campaign, denouncing terrorism but also expressing wariness over military action in Afghanistan. Having Christopher Ross elegantly rebut bin Laden in Arabic may be an improvement, but he needs help. And just as America is depending in large part on the Northern Alliance to fight the ground war in Afghanistan, so, too, in the propaganda war the U.S. needs indigenous allies to aggressively carry the fight to bin Laden in the court of Arab and Muslim public opinion.