At 12:15 p.m. yesterday, as the United States bombed Afghanistan for a
second day, a sequined Liza Minnelli took the stage at the White House to sing
a song, moments after President Bush signed a Columbus Day proclamation.
The everything-is-normal image of calm resolution, punctuated by calls of
patriotism and unity from the White House, were in sharp contrast to the
images from halfway around the world -- angry anti-American mobs and fuzzy,
green TV footage of bombs dropping.
Since America leaped into the military fray of Afghanistan, the United
States has been fighting a war of words on two fronts, here and in the Muslim
The message at home is: We're doing the right thing, so carry on with your
lives. And the message to Arab countries is: We're fighting terrorism, not
But no matter how many packaged meals the United States drops or how many
assurances it gives that this isn't a war against Afghans, many in the Middle
East remain unconvinced.
Their reaction to the bombing attacks, combined with a widespread distrust
of all things American, indicates that the United States is facing a difficult
propaganda battle abroad.
A Dumbing Down
"The U.S. response is still steeped very much in good versus evil," said
Nancy Snow, a propaganda expert and associate director of UCLA's Center for
Communications and Community. "I can tell you that is not working very well in
other parts of the world, who see it as too simple, as a dumbing-down of a
very complex situation."
Because of U.S. support for Israel and the sanctions against Iraq, taking a
pro-American stance is extremely unpopular throughout the Middle East, even in
nations that oppose terrorism, said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle Eastern
history at Stanford.
Consequently, news outlets from the Gulf States quoted British Prime
Minister Tony Blair more frequently than President Bush. They also quoted
respected Muslims considered above reproach in their anti-terrorism stance,
such as estranged family members of Osama bin Laden.
Nevertheless, any public relations effort to increase support for the
military attack is overshadowed by the widespread view that America is
hypocritical when it comes to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, Beinin
"This is the part that our government does not pay much attention to: that
there is public opinion in the Arab world, and it matters," Beinin said.
The military action that started Sunday included a huge public-relations
and propaganda campaign on the part of the United States, including the
airdrop on remote Afghan regions of medicine and 74,000 individually wrapped
"Humanitarian Daily Rations."
The United States also is reportedly dropping leaflets on Taliban
strongholds promising that America would "protect and reward" anyone who
turned in bin Laden. Another set of leaflets promises refugees that they will
be fed and warns them not to join Taliban forces. That message is punctuated
by a radio message broadcast from a U.S. C-130 jet flying near the Afghanistan
While the Pentagon repeatedly said the humanitarian aid was just as
important as the military action, there was a different message from Middle
Eastern aid workers dealing with an estimated 5 million refugees.
Mohammed Kroessin, the director of Muslim Aid, told the London Guardian
that the military action "will cause immense suffering to millions of starving
people. Air drops will not be useful." Other prominent aid organizations
echoed his views, but the U.S. media almost universally ignored their
In the United States, another spin campaign is being fought by the White
House to show Bush as strong in the face of crisis. Selective anecdotes about
his leadership are being leaked to the media. When he announced the attacks on
Afghanistan, Bush made the unusual decision to sit in front of a window in the
White House Treaty Room, as if to say: "You may hide in caves, but I'm out
here in the open."
For Domestic Consumption
The current White House message appears as much directed at the American
public as the Middle East. Hours after bombs were dropped, Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to a "so-called" war and repeatedly spoke
about the airlifted food.
Sunday, Bush spoke repeatedly about the "oppressed people of Afghanistan . . . the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan."
The next day, the White House was back to almost normal.
For UCLA's Snow it offered evidence that the U.S. public was being denied
context and history at a time when it really needs such information, not just
maps showing the position of aircraft carriers.
"It's almost like a conditioning," Snow said, "that they want you to
pretend that everything is the same, and we don't want you to worry about the
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle