Bill Press: We're losing the spin war
By Bill Press
WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- The war against terrorism is not one war, but two: the military war and the spin war. We've won the first. We haven't even begun to fight the second.
Our military have done an outstanding job in Afghanistan. The Taliban are gone. The al Qaeda network is destroyed. The only job left for American forces is mopping up and helping maintain order till the new Afghan government takes over. If only the spin war had started so early and been so successful. That is clearly not the case.
Terrorism is, at its core, a clash of beliefs. We believe in basic freedoms. We believe in democratic decision-making. We believe in free enterprise. The terrorists don't. But we will never destroy their misguided beliefs with guided missiles.
Individual terrorists, or groups of terrorists, can be tracked down and wiped out with weapons. Ideas can not. The only way to change one set of ideas is by communicating a better set of ideas. Some call it propaganda. I call it spin. But there's nothing wrong with getting our message out in the most effective way possible. It's an essential part of any war effort.
Allied propaganda during World War II was especially creative. It included broadcasting recordings of Glenn Miller's band behind German lines, with a sultry-voiced "Ilse" announcing the tunes in German.
By contrast, during Vietnam, we did little to spin the war in our favor, with obvious consequences. It was one of the big mistakes of the Vietnam war, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said in his book "In Retrospect": "We failed ... to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture."
So far, in the war against terrorism, our efforts have been equally pathetic. The first step - asking TV networks not to broadcast video of Osama bin Laden - was pointless. The problem is not that bin Laden might be seen on American television screens, where he would convince no one. The problem is that he is being seen on millions of television screens in countries where his message still has resonance.
Doesn't anybody in the White House get it? Instead of keeping Osama bin Laden off our television, we should be putting American spokesmen - preferably Arab-speaking Muslims - on al-Jazeera and other networks with a strong message to world Muslims: "We are proud to be Americans. We live here. We practice our faith here. We enjoy the same rights, opportunities and freedom as all other Americans. And, by the way, Osama bin Laden is dead wrong in his interpretation of Islam."
Next the Bush Administration hired Madison Avenue legend Charlotte Beers, famous for selling Uncle Ben's Rice, to create new ads for America. This is not necessarily a bad idea. But what was her first product? A series of commercials, on American television, offering rewards for information leading to the arrests of terrorists.
Again, wrong target, wrong message. Americans don't need any greater incentive than 9/11 to dial 911. And people in other countries first need to be told what's right about America, and what's wrong with terrorism, before being offered cash for ratting on their neighbors.
Then Hollywood producers and studio chiefs, prodded into action by Bush political guru, Karl Rove, came up with the latest and dumbest idea of all: hiring as America's spokesman to the Muslim world - Muhammad Ali. Surely, they've got to be kidding.
True, Ali had a great career in the ring and is a folk hero in American sports. But he is not as well known in much of the world, where boxing as a sport does not exist. His speech is slurred from a long battle with Parkinson's disease. And even though he converted to Islam, he has no real standing in the Muslim community. You have to wonder: How would "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" translate into Arabic? And what would it mean?
Instead of talking about what country we're going to bomb next, we should be talking about how we're going to convince others that our war actions are just and necessary. If we're ever going to defeat terrorism, winning the spin war is more important than winning the military war.
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