SPECIAL REPORT

BOMBS AND BOMBAST

After a month of war, the U.S. needs results-in the field and on the PR front

JONATHON GATEHOUSE November 12 2001
SPECIAL REPORT

BOMBS AND BOMBAST

After a month of war, the U.S. needs results-in the field and on the PR front

JONATHON GATEHOUSE November 12 2001

BOMBS AND BOMBAST

SPECIAL REPORT

After a month of war, the U.S. needs results-in the field and on the PR front

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

The grainy black-and-white images of clean surgical strikes have been trumped by the bloody colour of collateral damage. Screaming children wrapped in scarlet gauze, women wailing by the corpses of loved ones, elderly men staring vacantly at the rubble of family homes. Four weeks into the bombing of Afghanistan, the military blunders of the United States and its allies in the global war on terrorism appear to be eroding the moral high ground. As civilian casualties mount and successful hits against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors prove more difficult to score than the Pentagon had hoped, public impatience is growing, new doubts are being created at

home, and old biases reinforced abroad.

Americans, emotionally exhausted after the events of Sept. 11, are hungry for vic-

tory. Instead, they are being fed a steady diet of fear and misery: warnings of imminent terrorist attacks, perhaps targeting nuclear plants or California’s landmark bridges; more anthrax infections and a fourth fatality—a Manhattan hospital worker with no apparent connection to the outbreak; contradictory messages from military leaders; and quiet admissions that George W Bush’s crusade against “evildoers” is not going exacdy as planned. Despite the thousands of bombing raids already flown—pilots from the USS Carl Vinson, just one of the halfdozen allied aircraft carriers in the waters near Afghanistan, have completed more than 1,000 sorties, dropping 700,000 lb. of high explosives—the Taliban regime has not collapsed as predicted.

As a consequence, U.S. intelligence services are having little luck pinpointing the location of bin Laden and other high-ranking members of his Al-Qaeda network. With the bitter Afghan winter only weeks away, senior American officials suddenly seem to believe their own public warnings that a conclusive victory might take years.

“We thought we were going to get them quickly,” a White House source told Macleans last week.

“That hasn't worked. But well get them next summer.”

Next summer? Opinion polls already suggest war fatigue might be setting in. While 87 per cent of respondents to a New York Times!CBS News poll said they approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president, only 28 per cent said they were “very confident” the U.S. will capture or kill the alleged mastermind behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A survey published by the British newspaper The Guardian found that a majority of people in Britain—54 per cent—now want a pause in the bombing campaign to allow for humanitarian aid. Overall support for military action has dropped by 12 per cent in two weeks, said the paper, and now stands at 62 per cent.

That weakening of resolve has caught the attention of London and Washington. British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a Churchillian address in Wales last week, calling for more fortitude in the face of a global menace. “We are a principled nation and this is a principled conflict,” said Blair, who pledged to limit civilian casualties. “Sept. 11 is no less appalling today than it was on Sept. 11. Our determination is no less resolute than it was on the day military action began.” Bush, never the best of orators, tried to reassure his public through conspicuous displays of leadership, such as throwing out the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, under the watchful eyes and weapons of thousands of police and Secret Service agents. And Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. defence secretary, chided critics and urged patience, noting it took America four months to respond militarily to Pearl Harbor. The ground campaign

in Afghanistan is coming, he hinted.

In the Muslim world, the fragile coalition against terrorism appears to be unravelling by the minute. Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and his Indonesian counterpart, Megawati Sukarnoputri, have spoken out publicly against the errant bombs that have destroyed, among other things, Red Cross food warehouses. Newspapers and television news programs are filled with pictures of dead Afghan civilians—and Israeli tanks rumbling through the streets of the West Bank.

That ground offensive in the wake of the assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, a hardline member of the Israeli cabinet, has inflamed tensions throughout the region. Why, Arabs ask, back a war against terrorism led by a government that provides $9 billion a year in support to the oppressors of the Palestinian people? “When dictators and colonialists get support, and civilians trying to obtain their rights by any means are called terrorists, then people have a problem,” says Dr. Labib Kamhawi, a businessman and political analyst based in Amman, Jordan. “The issue of freedom, a right to fair representation and economic

opportunities must be addressed.” The Gulf War now seems a distant memory. Then, the constant threat of Scud missile attacks kept Iraq’s neighbours focused on the problem at hand, while the world’s media compliantly accepted allied boasts of dazzling accuracy. Now, the Taliban at times appears to be winning the PR batde, with media tours of destroyed villages and daily news conferences in Pakistan, although the regime’s newfound concern for the welfare of civilians is openly questioned. “CNN was generating a picture of victory in the Gulf War, but now we have pictures of death and destruction,” says Paul Rutherford, a University of Toronto historian and propaganda expert. “People e are getting more scared the more I they watch it.”

Coming up short in the battle for hearts and minds in the MidI die East, the White House has turned to outside help, giving a $595,000 contract to a Washington public relations firm to help counter opposition. At home, the warnings of impending terrorist attacks seem to have stiffened resolve. And the war on terrorism is scoring victories, says Jim Hanson, associate executive director of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies, a military think-tank in Toronto.

The first month has seen achievements on the diplomatic, economic and intelligence fronts, he says, as the coalition scrambles to prevent further attacks by cutting off support and funding for terrorists. But Hanson, a former brigadiergeneral in the Canadian Forces, acknowledges that those successes are not showing up on the media’s radar—and are not getting through to a public that has developed unreasonable expectations and may have forgotten that victory demands sacrifices. On the other hand, some 5,000 American citizens died on Sept. 11 in New York City and Washington. And that, Hanson says, “could equate to a certain tolerance for body bags that was not there before.” EÛ3

With William Lowther in Washington, Leora Eren Frucht in Jerusalem and Mariam Shahin in Amman