Who’s winning the “war on terror” on the PR front? Well…
There are a couple of items out there that suggest that the U.S. is still fighting an uphill battle. It hard not to feel at little sorry for Bush’s new “PR czar” Karen Hughes (hard, not impossible) after she got a drubbing at the hands of Turkish women in a meeting this week.
“You cannot bring in war for the sake of peace. The United States cannot interfere in the democracy problem and solve it through war,” argued Feray Sazman, a women’s rights leader. (Ed. Note: A surprising number of Americans agree.)
Human rights leader Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal told Hughes she saw fear in the eyes of women and children in photographs from Iraq every day and it left her feeling “wounded and insulted.”
“This war is really, really bringing all your positive efforts to the level of zero,” she said.
“War makes the rights of women completely erased and poverty comes after war and women pay the cost,” declared Fatma Nevin Vargun, a Kurdish activist. (Ed. Note: If wha I’m reading in Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near : Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War is any indication, this statement is pretty much true.)
…Tuksal said afterward she was not satisfied with answers given by Hughes, whose trip was designed to give the U.S. image in the Muslim world a much-needed boost — a task Hughes acknowledged was a huge challenge.
“There is no chance the image is better because the fight is still going on,” Tuksal said. “People are dying every day. Whatever she says, it is not enough to make the image better.”
Vargun said the United States should “lead the way” against violence and raised the issue of anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan who was arrested on Monday.
“I read in the press about the woman whose son died in Iraq and she was detained because she was sitting on the pavement in front of the White house,” Vargun said. “This was a pity for us.”
It’s saying something, when Cindy Sheehan is more successful at winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world than the Bush administration is, and it makes me wonder just why people think we can successfully soldier on in Iraq under an administration that has shown little willingness to admit to mistakes, let alone learn from them or change course when its actions and policies produce the exact opposite of the intended effects.
While news analysis has focused on the “security hole” the cultural implications of this event could be drastic. Past studies of female suicide bombing indicate that they require in general a much higher degree of provocation to incite them than men. Either extreme hopelessness and oppression, rape by military/police units, or the provocative death of husbands/male relatives/lovers are generally required to incite women to suicide bombing. This could be a one time event, but if it comes more often it will be a damning sign that our occupation of Iraq has turned septic and has produced grevious wounds in the hearts of Iraqis.
Of course what’s wrong in Iraq is us, because we’ve been getting it wrong in Iraq from day one. The steadfast obtuseness of the Bush administration, manifest here in Hughes’ responses to her audience (did she even hear them?), doesn’t inspire hope that we’re going t be getting it right anytime soon, because we don’t appear to know how.
And any arguments that the insurgents willingness to use women in their attacks is merely a sign of their brutality, are outweighed by questions of what makes women willing to sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks. In other words, it’s not just a new low for them. It’s a new low for us too, and one that speaks volumes of our failure in Iraq.
On the other side of the P.R. divide it’s very interesting to hear that Al Jazeera’s latest hire is a former U.S. Marine.
[Josh] Rushing, 33, has taken a job reporting for a new channel for Al-Jazeera. That’s the Qatar-based network that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said is “perfectly willing to lie to the world” and has “a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again” for its 50 million viewers, most of them in the Arab world.
…Rushing, who will appear on a global, English-language news channel the network hopes to start by spring, considers his decision to work for Al-Jazeera noble, not seditious. “I’ve given my entire adult life to the health and well-being of this nation,” Rushing says. “I wouldn’t do anything to threaten that.
…Rushing views Al-Jazeera’s English-language channel as a forum for reaching millions of Muslims, many of whom may not understand the America he knows, and for reaching millions who he thinks know little about the Muslim world, including Americans.
“The gravity of it sets in all the time,” he says during an interview in the dining room at the private Army and Navy Club, two blocks from the White House. “It puts me where the good fight is — at a station that’s going to bridge America and the rest of the world.”
And he’s a Texas boy, at that. You might remember Rushing from the documentary about Al Jazeera, Control Room, as the young Marine liaison to the network, who was profoundly shocked realize he had been more moved by footage of American casualties in Iraq than he was by footage of Iraqi casualties .
Control Room captured Rushing’s growing respect for Al-Jazeera’s staff, particularly senior producer Hassan Ibrahim, with whom he had many philosophical debates. In one scene, Rushing talked about how revolted he was by Al-Jazeera showing dead American soldiers and interviews with American prisoners of war. Then he noted that he had seen video of Iraqi casualties on the network and not been affected by what he saw.
“It upset me on a profound level that I wasn’t as bothered as much the night before,” he said in the film. “It makes me hate war.”
When the film was released in 2004, reviewers commented on Rushing’s candor. Rushing told The Village Voice that American media don’t tell the whole story when they cover a war. “In America war isn’t hell — we don’t see blood, we don’t see suffering. All we see is patriotism, and we support the troops. It’s almost like war has some brand marketing here,” he said in that interview.
Ordered by his superiors to stop talking about the film, Rushing eventually decide to leave the Marines. The Corps’ loss turned out to be Al Jazeera’s gain.
As a former U.S. Marine, who saw the war in Iraq up close and personal, and couldn’t buy the hype and propaganda, Rush may stand a better chance than Hughes of winning a few hearts and minds in the Arab world. Ironically, Al Jazeera’s brilliant hiring decision (c’mon, you gotta give ’em that) may actually be our last best hope of simultaneously improving the U.S. image in the Muslim world and maybe even increasing Americans’ understanding of the the diverse concerns of Arabs and Muslims around the world. Rushing puts it much better than I can.
What he hopes critics will understand, Rushing says, is that he believes he’s doing what a Marine officer is trained to do.
“We’re taught to ‘turn the map around,’ ” to see things from the enemy’s perspective, Rushing says. He hopes he can help people around the world see America differently, and help Americans see the world in new ways.
That is, if we’re willing to to watch, listen and learn.
The Bush administration may not be able to shift its perception of the war in Iraq and its impact on our image worldwide. But if polls and recent anti-war demonstrations across the country are any indication, Americans may be more aware than at any other time since the war began that the way we’ve been doing it doesn’t work. They may be more likely watch, listen, and learn to see the Arab world differently.
If that street runs both ways, it may be an effective detour around the Bush administration — which, like a stick in the mud, appears firmly entrenched in its outlook on the quagmire it created. If that’s the case, the winner in the “P.R. war” won’t be the Bush administration, but may be instead the rest of us; Americans and Arabs alike.