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A narrative for a long war: US public relations and the jihadis.



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Background Briefing

 

Sunday 20 August 2006

A narrative for a long war: US public relations and the jihadis

 

THEME

George W. Bush: We're dealing with a new enemy that uses new means of attack and new methods to communicate. America's fighting a tough war against an enemy whose ruthlessness is clear for all to see.

Stan Correy: Call it the War on Terror, or the Long War. This is also a war over how it will be described in the history books.

Hello, I'm Stan Correy and this is Background Briefing on ABC Radio National.

Both sides in this war have their special audiences and these audiences are being bombarded with competing narratives.

'Narrative wars' may sound like the title of a lecture at a post modern literature conference, but it's taken very seriously in counter-terrorism circles.

In early July, soon after the conflict in Lebanon had begun, public relations guru John Rendon gave a talk about the Long War on Terrorism.

John Rendon: What is it that people will be taught in schools five years from now around the world, about what transpired over the last five years? Whoever writes that narrative will play a big role in whether the war is 100 months long at that point, or 100 years long. This narrative will become essential. And how will those stories be handed down, family to family, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, generation to generation? And how will that story be told in movies, which after all are our tools of time. It's about networks and its about the narrative.

Stan Correy: John Rendon, one of the Pentagon's most experienced and controversial spin-doctors. He was speaking last month at a think-tank called the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco.

When Rendon speaks, his words carry weight. He spoke at length about the loss of US credibility in the Middle East and Muslim world. And in a sobering assessment for US policy makers, he warned, whoever controls the narrative, wins the war of ideas.

John Rendon: I think we're fighting two wars. One is we're fighting a war that is comprised of real terrorists coming at us and our coalition partners, whether it's London, Madrid, Casablanca, Amman. Names, faces, places, locations, some of which we know and some of which we don't. That was is being fought largely by the military and the intelligence community and it's being fought tens of thousands of miles away from here, and sometimes close to the border, or even just inside the border with law enforcement agencies. And that part of the war, quite candidly, is going fairly well. A lot has been stopped, sometimes in the middle of the night, but it's going fairly well. The second war is the war of potential terrorists, some of whom are alive and some of whom are not yet born and that's the war I can actually lose sleep over.

Stan Correy: Rendon's talk was given three weeks ago, before London police foiled a terrorist plot to blow up several planes in the mid-Atlantic. The police also claimed to have stopped several other terrorist actions. This is the war Rendon says is going well, but it's the second front we should be worrying about.

John Rendon: Colleagues of mine who are media analysts and native-language speakers from the region, remind me that in this war it's really not a war of potential terrorists, it's a war of potential allies. And these allies are individuals and they're citizens, and here is the reason they say that. We say that it's not a war against Islam, and we run the risk that 1.2-billion people hear that it is. If 1% of them are violent extreme actors bent on attacking and destroying the United States of America, and coalition partners, that's 12-million people. If they come with support networks of 2% to 3%, that's 48-million people. Now no government in the United States, regardless of political party or ideology is going to authorise the construction of a combat operations plan that goes after 48-million people one by one. That means that if we don't think long, and think long sooner rather than later, we will be in a situation where we will be fighting the fight and not necessarily fighting to win.

Stan Correy: So what did John Rendon mean when he says the West fights the fight but not necessarily to win? It's all about engaging a wider audience.

John Rendon: That means in reality, the threat comes not from the 12-million people, the 1%, the threat comes from the rest, if we don't get them engaged in the nature of this conflict. What we need to do is to (and I'll borrow from Tom Friedman on this) we need to turn the street into an active ally and away from being a passive observer. What we really need, and this is to think long again, is we need the parents in the countries to believe, because it is true, that the American people care more about their children and their children's children, than the governments of the countries in which they live. If we don't start thinking about the people in these countries we're going to miss an enormous opportunity.

Stan Correy: John Rendon, a PR strategist who does most of his work for the Pentagon. As he says, from London to Casablanca, to Iraq, and most recently, South Lebanon, the long war has many fronts.

GUNFIRE

Stan Correy: As real war intensified in the villages and cities of Lebanon and Israel, the public relations war also was in full swing.

Journalist Kylie Morris got caught up in the physical and the PR war as she entered Bint Jbeil, one of a number of villages in South Lebanon, including Qana that had been devastated by Israeli missile attacks.

Kylie Morris: I think we're actually able to enter the town with a tacit agreement of Hezbollah. When Hezbollah understands that in a way this is quite good PR for them, for people to be shown the destruction in towns like Bint Jbeil and even to be shown what happened at Qana, certainly I think we're being [inaudible] in a game here, there's certainly no doubting that.

Stan Correy: Channel 4 reporter Kylie Morris, talking on Radio National Breakfast about her visit to the town of Bint Jbeil in Southern Lebanon

What she was describing was how journalists become unwitting players in a conflict.

Kylie Morris: Well I'm personally horrified by the idea of journalists becoming part of their story, but today it was this obscene kind of vision of - there was no-one else to help. There were people coming out asking you to help them carry their relatives out the buildings, and you had photographers and journalists literally picking up doors, and putting people onto doors and carrying them as fake stretchers down the road. And it was an obscene situation really, and the tragedy of it was, that there was no-one else there to help.

Stan Correy: The war of ideas is not as physically devastating as real war, but it has a viciousness of its own. Think about the coverage of casualty figures, faked photographs and premature claims of victory in the past month.

That's one aspect of the PR war, the first casualty being truth. The other is one of the most misunderstood concepts in international relations: public diplomacy.

It's sometimes called soft power. The Israelis call it

Reader: Hasbara.

Stan Correy: In Arabic,

Reader: Ikhteraq.

Stan Correy: Cynics call it propaganda, even information warfare, or Psy.Ops. And it's been an expensive headache for the US since September 11.

John Brown is a former US diplomat who resigned from the State Department over the decision to invade Iraq. He's also an authority on the history and practice of US public diplomacy. His specialist blog is a daily monitor on almost everything that is written or said about the subject.

John Brown: I think if traditional diplomacy consists of negotiations often held behind closed doors, public diplomacy focuses on communication to audiences, often wide audiences. Now public diplomacy is meant to supplement, if you will, traditional diplomacy because I think even the most traditional diplomats, the negotiating types if you will realise that you can't have negotiations between governments in a vacuum any more because of the importance of public opinion, because of the importance of a mass communication, so you have to take into consideration as you negotiate with governments, what publics in different countries think.

Stan Correy: What isn't public diplomacy then? Do you add advertising, is it Psy.Ops. that terms which is often more associated with Defence Departments and Intelligence or covert operations, does that come under the area of public diplomacy?

John Brown: Well the distinction I like to make is between public diplomacy and base propaganda. Now there's no doubt that public diplomacy has elements of propaganda but it cannot be reduced to being just propaganda. And the great danger is when public diplomacy is reduced to base propaganda, and some of the elements of base propaganda are, for example, simplification of the issues, demonisation if you will, of the other of the enemy, constant repetition of slogans that are not necessarily linked logically; violence to language; lack of concern about historical accuracy; and finally, the worst form of base propaganda which is disregard for truth. So public diplomacy has to persuade, but it has to persuade in a logical, well-argued fashion that respects truth.

Stan Correy: Former American diplomat, John Brown.

Chairman: But now, without further delay, let me present to you the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

APPLAUSE

Donald Rumsfeld: Thank you very much, Ken. Ladies and Gentlemen ...

Stan Correy: With the continuing sectarian conflict in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld's performance as Defense Secretary has been constantly questioned. But he doesn't give in easily. In his youth, he was a wrestler, and he won most of his bouts in college tournaments by guile rather than strength.

US policy makers have stumbled badly in recent years in selling the US case to multiple audiences in the Middle East and the Muslim world.

At the same time the terrorists, the jihadis, have appeared to be more 'on message'.

Speaking in February to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Rumsfeld almost conceded that the jihadis were winning the PR war.

Donald Rumsfeld: Consider this statement. 'More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of Muslims.' The speaker was not some modern-day image consultant in a public relations firm here in New York City, it was Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. I mention this because I want to talk today about something that at first might seem obvious, but it really isn't obvious.

Consider that the violent extremists have established media relations committees. These are terrorists, and they have media relations committees that meet and talk about strategy, not with bullets, but with words. They've proven to be highly successful at manipulating the opinion elites of the world. They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communication to intimidate and break the collective wills of free people.

Stan Correy: In this speech, earlier in the year, Donald Rumsfeld made the surprising admission that US government PR was less sophisticated than the jihadis.

Donald Rumsfeld: Our federal government is really only beginning to adapt our operations to the 21st century. For the most part, the US government still functions as a five and dime store in an eBay world. Today we're engaged in the first war in history, unconventional and irregular as it may be, in an era of emails, blogs, Blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras, a global internet with no inhibitions, cellphones, hand-held video cameras, talk radio, 24-hour news broadcasts, satellite television. There's never been a war fought in this environment before.

Stan Correy: Donald Rumsfeld's concession that the Americans are lagging in the information war is a boost for the jihadis. Two days after Rumsfeld made this speech in February, the GIMF responded. The GIMF is the Global Islamic Media Front, one of the jihadist PR groups, which has produced a number of videos on behalf of al-Qa'eda.

The GIMF response came under the slogan:

Reader: Onwards to the aid of Islam through the media.

Stan Correy: The GIMF called for supporters to use mobile phone and video cameras to;

Reader: Spy on the enemy and expose his ignominy and shame, striking the enemy in images, audio statements, poetry, flash and so on, which expose the real state of affairs, for this is their greatest weak spot.

Stan Correy: Jihadi spin doctors also know they have a difficult message to sell, but they construct their campaigns in a methodical way. Whatever the occasion, they can turn out a production that is guaranteed to upset Western audiences, but is micro targeted to the people they want to influence.

In the wake of the foiled plot to blow up transatlantic air flights, several British Muslims of Pakistani origin have been arrested, as well as two Western converts to Islam. There's already a report of a martyrdom video being found, ready to be released after a successful mass attack.

An example of this kind of video came last month with the anniversary of the July 7, 2005, London bombing.

BOMB

Stan Correy: The video contained the testament of two of the London bombers from 2005, Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer. Tanweer addressed his message in his North Country accent to the non-Muslims of Britain, telling them 'You may be wondering what you have done to deserve this'.

Shehzad Tanweer: You are those who have voted in your government, who in turn have, and still continue to this day, continue to oppress our mothers, children, brothers and sisters, from the east to the west, in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. Your government has openly supported the genocide of over 150,000 innocent Muslims in Fallujah.

Stan Correy: Tanweer appears on the video looking like a typical jihadi, with the right clothes and the right rhetoric.

In the book, Landscapes of the Jihad , New York based historian, Faisal Devji analysed several jihadist productions, looking for clues as to why young Muslims join the movement. Devji says it's got little, if anything, to do with where they grew up, it's more to do with the way the jihadist movement packages its message through the media.

Faisal Devji: I think there is a mistake made when such videos come out and all attention is directed towards the content of what people are saying. And of course that's important, but increasingly it seems, the content of what they're saying is actually simply they are repetitions and they are reiterations, and sound bites. You're not actually getting anything particularly new. What's interesting is the whole package that you see, gestures, the behaviour and all the rest. So in the case of videotapes of Mohammed Siddique Khan and of Shehzad Tanweer, you have a lot of interesting things going on.

First of all, the references are all to other media events. They're not to anything as it were, outside the media. Now for instance we know that Mohammed Siddique Khan was very admiring of videotape testament, or a kind of internet testament that was issued some years ago by another British Muslim who was killed in Tora Bora during the Afghan War. Both he and Shehzad Tanweer dress up in this strange form of fancy dress, you know, wearing a kind of pretend Palestinian-style kaffiyeh thing on their heads and this is very common. Of course they don't come from such a tradition at all, they were of Pakistani origin, these kinds of clothes don't belong to that tradition at all. They adopt posture and demeanour that deliberately mimics the posture and demeanour of people like Ayman al-Zawahir who is bin Laden's right-hand man. So for instance the sort of continuous wagging of the finger to the camera, or using certain kinds of words, even though they spoke in English as opposed to Arabic.

So all these things are very interesting, and what's very curious about them is that in neither case, neither of the videotapes actually refer at all to either their own backgrounds or their own communities in England or to Britain was condemned as supporting the torture and annihilation of Muslims, but it wasn't condemned as it were, by people who presented themselves as British Muslims even though they were. In other words they didn't refer to anything that happened to them as British Muslims.

Stan Correy: Faisal Devji.

Another recent video produced by the Global Islamic Media Front is a good illustration of Devji's analysis of the jihadi's use of ultra-modern media production. Slickly produced in the style of an ad for a sports shoe, the content is deliberately shocking.

On the screen, the titles appear:

Reader: Global Islamic Media Front presents Mujahadeen World Cup .

Stan Correy: In Arabic script, this question is typed out:

Reader: Which of these two goals is more beautiful? This goal?

FOOTBALL COMMENTARY

Stan Correy: A short clip of a goal being scored in a football match between two Arab countries. In Arabic script, the next question is typed out:

Reader: Or this goal?

BOMBING

Stan Correy: A US armoured car is seen moving down a road in Iraq. The car explodes, and they keep repeating the explosion as the football-style commentary is heard in the background.

You're listening to ABC Radio National, and this week on Background Briefing we're examining the blunt and the subtle weaponry being used in the war of ideas between the West and the jihadists.

As we've heard, the Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about the failure of their public diplomacy messages to penetrate the Arab street, and this comes from no less a figure than the Pentagon's chief spin doctor, John Rendon. He talks about the struggle on both sides to claim the 'narrative' in this war.

And the jihadists are successfully employing the media techniques of their enemies in the West, an example being the sophisticated packaging of violence you've just heard, called the Mujahadeen World Cup . Its inspiration comes not from Islamic theology but through a careful study of Western management and marketing techniques, and political theory.

At the US Military Academy, West Point, there's a Center for Combating Terrorism, and researchers at the Center have translated several textbooks on jihadi media strategy and public diplomacy.

One is called The Management of Savagery , a guide book for jihadis to help them explain their violent methods to Muslims and non-Muslims. The author is Abu Bakr Naji, and here's a reading from the book.

Reader: The human structure of the enemy is weak with regards to battle. He compensates for that by using gadgets. It's not possible for him to depend on them forever. Likewise, the enemy compensates for that by using a deceptive media halo and using media deception during each of his movements and when confronting any action from the mujahids. Therefore, understanding the media politics of the adversaries and dealing with them is very important in winning the military and political battle.

Stan Correy: The Management of Savagery is translated by William McCants, a researcher at the Center for Combating Terrorism. He says the jihadis' primary problem in the Middle East is to somehow overcome the perception of United States military invincibility. The jihadis believe that while the US does have overwhelming military power, it loses its punch as it spreads far and wide.

I spoke to William McCants on the phone from his home in the US.

William McCants: So Naji says instead the United States creates an aura of invincibility, as he calls it, to intimidate people and get them to go along with the US program. So for Naji, his media strategy is two-pronged. Number One: the first job is to dispel this aura of US invincibility, and you do that, he says, by repeated small attacks because this shows that the United States is powerless to stop them. And he also says that once the United States withdraws from Iraq, which in his mind is inevitable, it will do a lot towards destroying their aura of invincibility in the region, and make local regimes which are supported by the United States, very vulnerable.

Stan Correy: Once the jihadi attacks begin to have some effect, then the media campaign begins. The Management of Savagery explains in detail how to organise a campaign. As a guidebook, it also contains critical reviews of past terrorist attacks. What helped the jihadis win support, and what failed. It's very important, say the jihadi spin-doctors, not to be too dogmatic in the media campaigns.

William McCants explains.

William McCants: The second prong is Naji says you need more focused media campaigns, and he argues that jihadi groups in the past really failed in this regard, they failed to properly spin their attacks and even when they did try to justify it, they were really preaching to the choir, they weren't using arguments that appealed to the masses, they were using Islamic arguments that only appealed to their own constituency and hence they lost popular support. So Naji's solution, he says No.1 you have to be careful in targeting your various groups, don't just focus on the elites. On the other hand, don't just focus on the masses, be discriminating. And the goal is to win over a small part of the masses and mid-ranking members of the military. He says this is who the jihadis really need to focus on. He acknowledges that they will never win over a large following because of the violent tactics they use, but he says they just need to convince a small vanguard to come over to their side in order to be successful. And so the media strategy then is really one of polarisation.

Stan Correy: It's also more sophisticated than that. Naji understands that their enemies portray them as being totally made, because of their violent methods. So it's important, in their words, to present a rational case for violence.

William McCants: Jihadis have to be much better at justifying their attacks, using religious arguments, but in particularly rational arguments. And that these must be geared towards a non-jihadi audience. And he also says that jihadis have to freely admit their errors, and he argues that this will give them greater credibility with the masses when compared to the US and its allies, who are very reluctant to admit when they've made errors.

Stan Correy: William McCants.

When the jihadis release a video it's never accidental or slapdash. Never a one-off message produced after an attack.

Dr Steven Corman is in charge of the CSC, the Consortium for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University. The CSC researchers are communications specialists, not terrorism researchers. They wanted to find out why the jihadi message makers do so well in communicating with their target audiences. They've isolated three strategies: Legitimating, which is getting people to understand and support their movement; Propagating, which is expanding their membership and spreading it geographically; and Intimidating, which is scaring and weakening their enemies.

Dr Steven Corman.

Steven Corman: These crossed in a fairly sophisticated way with different segments of the audience. So for example, bad guys who are unbelievers in the West like us, the Jews and Israel, the apostate Arab regimes, they're mostly targets of the intimidation messages. But there's also a class of good guys who are actual supporters of theirs, sympathisers, potential supporters, even people are common criminals in the Islamic world, those are mostly the target of propagation and legitimation messages, and to a lesser extent the bad guys are the targets of the legitimation messages too. So they have these three things that they essentially have to accomplish in order for their movement to succeed and spread, they have a sophisticated strategy for mapping those onto a well segmented audience, they adapt the messages to those audiences. And I suppose that's the main thing we were trying to tease out in their texts.

Stan Correy: The CSC researchers produced a document recently: 'US public diplomacy in an uncertain world'. They noted there was widespread recognition that public diplomacy efforts had failed. And that government agencies like the Pentagon and State Department were looking for new models of communication. What's needed is Strategic Ambiguity.

Dr Steven Corman.

Steven Corman: A point we've been trying to get across is that when you don't have high credibility, which the United States, in particular with the West in general, does not have in the Muslim world now. When the situation is really complex in terms of the audiences you're trying to address, and how they might respond to messages and so forth, that you shouldn't make such extensive efforts to control the message, because efforts to do that usually at best, may only wind up working with one of the audiences you're trying to deal with, and not all of them, perhaps not the ones you're most interested in.

Stan Correy: The American efforts at public diplomacy control can be illustrated by the way they treated the life and death of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who was described as the leader of al-Qa'eda in Iraq.

Before his death there was what might be called the bumbling Zarqawi tape, a video captured by the US military. The edited version portrayed a tough terrorist, and the unedited version showed him unable to handle a gun properly.

ACTUALITY

Army officer: What he didn't show you were the clips that I showed you wearing New Balance sneakers with his uniform, surrounded by supposedly competent subordinates who grabbed the hot barrel of a just-fired machine gun; have a warrior leader, Zarqawi who doesn't understand how to operate his weapons system, and has to rely on his subordinates to clear a weapon stoppage. It makes you wonder.

Steven Corman: The Coalition forces in Iraq captured that video and they found evidence on there that it had been heavily edited to remove some portions in which Mr Zarqawi didn't look quite so tough. And so the Coalition forces in Iraq released this video, they made the points about how he couldn't shoot a gun, how he needed help from his subordinates while he was wearing tennis shoes, and repeated these points just for good effect. We looked at how this propagated into the Western media and into the English language Arab media, and essentially it was dismissed in both cases. In the Western press it was framed as a propaganda effort; in the Middle East it was dismissed as nothing more than more Western duplicity, that really didn't show something important about Zarqawi at all. So here's a case where we tried to take something that we thought would put out a positive message about what we're doing, and a negative message about Zarqawi, but it didn't wind up having that effect at all. And it would have been better to release this videotape say to a third party perhaps, that would have discovered this and publicised it without the sort of tainted credibility that the United States has.

So a big takeaway would be, Stop trying so hard to control the message.

Stan Correy: But as you'll hear, the US military PR machine appeared not to take away any lessons from its handling of the Zarqawi video. Shortly afterwards the US army did manage to track down Zarqawi and after bombing his hideout, killed the No.1 enemy in Iraq. This was a propaganda coup for the Americans, even greater than the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Then at a press conference, a US army officer talked about the release of a cleaned up photo of the dead Zarqawi.

Army officer: ... his face was very, very bloodied, and we made a conscious decision that if we were going to take photographs of him and make them available publicly, like we did in the press conference, that we were going to clean him up. Despite the fact that this person actually had no regard for human life, we were not going to treat him in the same manner, and so they did clean his face up for the shots that were shown publicly.

Stan Correy: According to Dr Steven Corman, the death images of Zaraqwi released by the US military transformed him into a martyr.

Steven Corman: All this publicity, and especially the photo that was released of Zarqawi, played right into the jihadis' hands, by giving them details and a photo of a dead martyr that they could use to glorify him basically. Here's another case where it would have been better, probably, in order to try to make this a credible announcement of his death, to go to a trusted third party. So for example, the Jordanians I understand were instrumental in helping us find Zarqawi so we could kill him; perhaps they're the ones that should have released the photo or verified that he was actually dead and so forth, rather than us trying to do that.

Stan Correy: Steven Corman. He's Director of the Consortium for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University.

The release of the Zarqawi photos was an unexpected bonus for the jihadist movement. Because Zarqawi was also a PR problem for them. It all has to do with the historical tension in the Muslim community between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In the Muslim world, the jihadis want to be seen as liberators, not oppressors, but they know that a lot of their terrorist attacks also kill Muslim civilians. So a lot of Naji's analysis in The Management of Savagery is devoted to working out how to minimise collateral damage.

From the Centre for Combating Terrorism, William McCants.

William McCants: Well Naji does not like attacks on Shia. Again, it's for pragmatic reasons, not for theological reasons. He feels like you need to work in concert with all Muslims willing to fight, in order to establish an Islamic state. Once you've done that, then you can sort out these theological differences. And I think that was typically Zawhariri's thinking up until recently and then al-Qa'eda after the death of Zarqawi begins top sanction attacks on the Shia, but then all of a sudden, several weeks later, you have Hezbollah looking like the great defenders of Muslim interests in the region, and I think al-Qa'eda is in a bit of a quandary now.

Stan Correy: Even with a good media strategy, jihadists still need to pick their targets carefully. When Zarqawi organised the bombing of the hotel in Amman last year, it turned into a major PR disaster for al-Qa'eda.

William McCants: This was a massive, massive blow to popular support for bin Laden. You'll notice in recent polls in the region that support for bin Laden has gone way, way down even in countries like Jordan where it has been high since September 11, and that has not been because of anything that the United States has done or said, in fact it's in spite of it. It's because of this Muslim on Muslim violence.

Stan Correy: And the lesson for US public diplomacy, from al-Qa'eda's PR problems? Well William McCants says it might be better just to shut up.

William McCants: See when you have officials out in front, making statements about democracy or that Islam is a religion of peace, what they are saying may be true, but it's the fact that they are saying it discredits the message. And I think a lot of the time the United States would be better off just not saying anything, and letting the jihadis destroy themselves, because that's sort of the end game for a lot of these extremist movements. There was a lot of popular support for Islamists in Algeria in the early '90s, and also for the groups that rose up after the elections were cancelled, but because of the extremism of those groups and the ever-widening circle of their targets, they lost popular support and I think if you can contain the jihadi threat long enough it will collapse under its own extremist weight after a time.

Stan Correy: William McCants from the Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point.

His work is part of an intensive research effort commissioned by the Pentagon to better target its message, as opposed to its missiles. The research findings don't seem to be getting through to the chiefs, though, and thus to the application of US policy. As we've heard, the tendency is to try to control the message, and the research says that's not working.

It is the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, rather than the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who seems to be the chief US strategist on public diplomacy.

In February, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Rumsfeld took questions from an audience made up of American PR industry leaders, and his frustration showed in his answer to one of the first questions: why has the United States been so slow to develop ways to effectively communicate its values in the Middle East?

Donald Rumsfeld: I mean, I don't know. First of all it's hard to do, and second, the Congress and the executive branch are uncomfortable with change, and it's going to require change. It's a totally new world. And third, the media, there's nothing the media would rather talk about than the media. It's true, you know it's true. And therefore, anything we do in this area is like the third rail. You start talking about it and you start trying to deal with it and try to figure out a different way to do it, and someone's going to say, 'Oh my goodness, you're trying to manipulate, you're trying to do something terrible'. And we're not. This is a great country we have, and by golly, we're not seen that way around the world, and we do an enormous number of things that benefit this world.

Stan Correy: Rumsfeld's frustration might be explained by the fact that a few days before he gave the speech, the New York Times had published an article profiling the Lincoln Group. The Lincoln Group is a PR firm that was contracted by Rumsfeld's Pentagon to pay Iraqi newspapers to take positive articles about the war in Iraq. The articles were to be written by US military public affairs officers.

One of the questions asked from the floor came from a past master of US public diplomacy, Ted Sorenson, who was President Kennedy's speech writer. And he put a very pointed question to Rumsfeld.

Ted Sorenson: My own travels abroad convinced me that you are right, that America's true values are often not getting through overseas, and our image, and as a result our standing, and maybe even our security, has suffered. Is the answer to improve our public relations techniques and equipment, as you implied? Or is the answer to improve our foreign policy?

Donald Rumsfeld: Well clearly, policies and communications are both terribly important. Policy makes a difference, and if you believe your policy is a correct one, there are always times when other countries aren't going to agree with those policies. And that doesn't mean you're wrong, it just means that from their perspective, I mean they just changed governments in a couple of countries in Europe, and their views changed with respect to our policies. Some favourable and some unfavourable. So our policies stayed the same. So just simply trying to get up every morning ...

Stan Correy: Donald Rumsfeld.

Under the pseudonym of Abu Aardvark, political scientist Marc Lynch runs a blog that monitors and interprets the Arabic media. He says Rumsfeld's increased involvement in America's public relations strategy has led to an unfortunate new trend, the militarisation of public diplomacy.

Marc Lynch: For instance, take a single situation where you have had something going on in say Iraq. Reports of marines committing atrocities, or something like that. From the military perspective what they want to do is to get out there and kill the story; they want to undermine it, they want to find ways to shut it down because it's complicating the war effort, and that makes perfect sense from a military point of view, because they're trying to achieve a specific objective in Iraq. From an American public diplomacy perspective, it might make more sense to say OK, these things are happening, America's not perfect, but engage in dialogue about the causes for it, the reasons for it, how it doesn't in fact compromise the wider American campaign, and that means taking some lumps, being willing to lose an argument or two, and I think that the militarisation of public diplomacy makes it more likely that you're going to have the former kind of very aggressive, short term kinds of interventions when actually the latter might be much more effective in the long term.

Stan Correy: Marc Lynch.

Public diplomacy's trendier name is soft power. It sounds and feels good. And that's what Radio Sawa was meant to be.

Since September 11, it's been the flagship of US public diplomacy in the Middle East.

Radio Sawa and the jihadist message builders target the same youth audience in the Middle East. They're both potential allies for the West, and potential recruits for the jihadis.

So how much notice do young Arabs take of Radio Sawa? Not much, according to recent surveys. Egyptian academic Adel Iskandar, says these audiences take what they want and ignore what they don't.

Adel Iskandar: This is something that I witnessed in Egypt just a few months ago, that people were listening to Radio Sawa on the Mediterranean coast of Alexandria and as soon as the news programming, the short news bulletins, would come on, they would immediately change the station. So it would from Britney Spears or Amr Diab, the popular singer in Egypt to another station. They were aware of the concerted effort on the part of the broadcaster to deliver a message, a clear sort of political message to them.

Stan Correy: Adel Iskandar is a communications specialist from the American University in Washington, D.C. He says Western public diplomacy hasn't done enough to identify the variety of audiences in the Arab world and how different they are from each other. The West can only think of a homogenous Arab street, captive to what's being broadcast on the Arab network, Al Jazeera, a network that until recently was off limits to US politicians. That was a bad move, says Adel Iskandar. It meant that the very term, 'public diplomacy' was tainted from the start.

Adel Iskandar: In fact the term 'public diplomacy' doesn't exist in Arabic and hasn't been expressed in that sense. Instead it's been translated to mean intellectual or mental penetration.

Stan Correy: What is the Arabic term for public diplomacy?

It's called Ikhteraq, which means to penetrate or break through, or tear through, which is a very active, invasive term. It doesn't resonate the same way as public diplomacy. Diplomacy has this floral impression to it, but the mental penetration is quite a surgical and radical procedure, and so the way that it's expressed in the linguistic vernacular on television, again casts it in a negative light. So when people associate Sawa and Radio Sawa with intellectual and mental penetration, there's something really quite subversive about that.

Stan Correy: Adel Iskandar from the American University in Washington, D.C.

The uneasy truce signed between Hezbollah and Israel was just a blip in the narrative wars. Two of the most prominent narrators on the side of the West are Condoleezza Rice and British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Tony Blair: There is an arc of extremism now stretching across the Middle East and touching with increasing definition, countries far outside that region. To defeat it, will need an alliance of moderation that paints a different future in which Muslim, Jew, and Christian, Arab and Western, wealthy and developing nations, can make progress in peace and harmony with each other.

Condoleezza Rice: What we're seeing here in a sense, is the growing, the birth pangs of a new Middle East and whatever we do we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.

Stan Correy: In this battle of the narratives, a 'new Middle East' is also enthusiastically embraced by the leaders of Iran and Syria.

President Bashir Assad (in Arabic) Translator: I'm glad to meet you in this new Middle East in the sense that we understand and in the shape that we want, which is not complete yet. It is new through the achievements of the resistance.

President Ahmadinjehad (in Farsi) Translator: Those people who imagine and who wanted to, as they put it, create a new Middle East, really mean a Middle East which will be a captive in the hands of America, Britain, and the Zionist regime.

Stan Correy: President Ahmadinjehad of Iran, and before him, President Assad of Syria.

And this brings us back to what the Pentagon's chief PR advisor, John Rendon, said at the beginning of Background Briefing .

John Rendon: What is it that people will be taught in schools five years from now around the world, about what transpired over the last five years? Whoever writes that narrative will play a big role in whether the war is 100 months long at that point, or 100 years long. This narrative will become essential.

Stan Correy: Picking who will write the winning narrative is proving difficult at this point, not least because of the most recent front in the war, in Lebanon. The key will be how the stories are framed.

Marc Lynch.

Marc Lynch: If you're al-Qa'eda, and you can establish the narrative that Islam is under attack by a relentlessly hostile West which wants to undermine and weaken Islam and destroy the Islamic community, then you can then make sense of all kinds of things. The bombs in Amman were not targeting innocent Muslims, they were trying to get rid of a nest of spies, and Amman, hosted by a monarch who's pro-Western, and is helping to prop up the American Zionist crusade, and the elections are just for show, they're to distract people from the reality of American and Zionist domination, and there's no chance that the real popular forces, the Islamists, will be allowed to win, so therefore you're not surprised when the United States is so unforthcoming when Hamas wins the elections.

In other words, once you've got a story line in place, all kinds of facts and things that happen, can then be put into place, and one of the things we know about these narratives in psychology terms, is that once you're kind of invested in this narrative, then things which support it, you take much more seriously and things which don't fit the narrative tend to just be ignored.

Stan Correy: Political scientist, Marc Lynch.

While al-Qa'eda pushes its narrative of 'Islam under attack', America is desperately trying to find a 'hopeful narrative'.

Marc Lynch: If you can establish the narrative that the West and the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims are working together to defeat extremism and move towards democracy, economic modernisation, and peaceful coexistence, it's a hopeful story and then you try and make things fit into that story line. So the argument about framing between al-Qa'eda and the West, and I think if went back to last year, you could have seen at least parts of the American narrative starting to gain some traction. But unfortunately, events of this year, of 2006, have largely been supporting the al-Qa'eda narrative from the standpoint of your average Muslim.

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Stan Correy: Background Briefing 's Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness. Sound Engineer, Russell Stapleton. Research and web production, Anna Whitfeld. Background Briefing 's Executive Producer is Chris Bullock.

Thanks also to the Long Now Foundation and San Simeon Releasing for permission to use John Rendon's speech. And to the US Council on Foreign Relations for the Rumsfeld talk.

I'm Stan Correy, and you've been listening to Background Briefing on ABC Radio National.

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