Winning the battle, losing the peace

Print edition : October 27, 2001

The West is set to lose the struggle for the hearts and minds of the global public unless it radically and substantially reforms its policies.

AS the first fortnight of the United States-led military operation in Afghanistan draws to a close, none of its stated strategic objectives has been achieved, barring the establishment of Western air supremacy, and destruction of Taliban air defences. The Al Qaeda network remains in place, Osama bin Laden is untraced, and their Taliban military support-base virtually intact. Contrary to certain expectations, the Taliban regime is not about to disintegrate or "collapse upon itself". The Northern Alliance has not made a decisive advance upon Kabul. The morale of America's adversaries remains remarkably high, while an anthrax panic prevails in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the "collateral damage" (read, avoidable death of 300-400 noncombatants, and damage to civilian life and property) continues to mount. "Smart" bombs, meant to reliably hit targets within a 12-metre diameter, are straying 1,600 metres away. United Nations personnel have died and Red Cross food depots have been destroyed. More than 200 innocent people have died in Khorram (also spelt Karam and Kharam), 40 km from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, in unexplained bomb attacks.

The peace movement is gathering momentum even as the U.S.-led "international coalition" frays at the edges, amidst confusion in Western capitals, and with Saudi Arabia and Indonesia entering strong reservations. There have been hundreds of demonstrations in numerous cities - not just in the "Muslim world", but in "Catholic" Italy, "Protestant" Germany and America, "Buddhist" Korea and "Hindu" India. (In Italy, a broad Left-led alliance spectacularly mobilised 300,000 people in a march from Perugia to Assissi.) The U.S. is in no hurry to bring about the fall of Kabul and facilitate the Northern Alliance's takeover of Afghanistan. It is under pressure from Pakistan on this count and at the same time badly dependent on it for intelligence on the Taliban.

Under the circumstances, the "other" war, the fight for the hearts and minds of the world public, or as many Western leaders see it, the "propaganda war" (the tile of The Economist's cover story of October 6-12) has become crucial. Many American and European leaders have made public statements to that effect. There are sharp differences in their approaches - ranging from outright censorship, to subtle distortion of news, to calls for transparency. Following President Bush's recent remark that "anybody who discloses classified information could literally endanger somebody's life", orders have been issued to U.S. officials to be circumspect in their remarks.

Government websites are being sanitised and vital information about military operations withheld. No "official" casualty figures have been put out. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's attempt to muzzle U.S. television channels in respect of relaying footage from independent Arabic channel Al Jazeera was the most widely reported manifestation of the new censorship approach. The extraordinary claim that video sequences from Al Qaeda may contain "coded messages" speaks of paranoia. It is surely far-fetched to imagine that bin Laden would need to communicate with his followers through Western TV channels rather than through means which were presumably established before September 11, assuming that Al Quaeda was indeed involved in that terrorist carnage.

Equally deplorable is the U.S. government's attempt to buy up all imagery from the commercial satellite Ikonos, containing one-metre resolution pictures of what's happening in Afghanistan. The U.S. does not need these pictures. Its own "Keyholes", military satellites, produce photographs which are six to ten times superior. The decision to purchase exclusive rights to Ikonos' pictures was taken to prevent the international media from getting them - after the heavy civilian casualties of October 10-11.

Even more pernicious is U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's declaration from the Pentagon podium that he does not "intend to lie" to the press about military operations, while repeatedly citing Winston Churchill's infamous words: "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies!" Rumsfeld turned so paranoid in the first week of operations that he refused to confirm that U.S. personnel had landed in Pakistani bases at Jacobabad and Pasni - even after Islamabad confirmed this (while claiming they are not combat troops).

The spin that Western TV channels are putting on news, analyses, interviews, even headlines pertaining to the "anti-terrorism war" has become increasingly crude. CNN has emerged as the biggest outpost of the U.S. government's propaganda apparatus after it shamefully declared that it would submit sensitive material to the "appropriate authorities". Even the BBC has presented news from a distinctly Western, rather than an international, point of view. Its preoccupations make more sense in Western capitals than in Kabul or Karachi, Delhi or Islamabad, Kuwait or Jakarta. It is a disgrace that the Indian media has been uncritically reproducing the worst of these biases.

A subtler approach to information is to be found in Tony Blair's statement after his recent visit to West Asia that the West must improve its media management if it is not to lose the propaganda war in the Arab world. Blair said the West's message, that its war is not against Islam or Muslims, is not getting through: "One thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media and public opinion operations in the Arab and Muslim world." More impressively, Blair said the West cannot hope to win "hearts and minds" in the Muslim world unless there is a fair settlement of the Palestinian issue.

Blair probably felt chastised by the snub delivered by Saudi Arabia's refusal to receive him. Amidst the poverty of global leadership, many people may want to elevate him to the level of "statesmanship", just as some did with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Even while strongly disagreeing with this assessment, one must concede Blair is right. But can the West, in particular the U.S., address misgivings in large parts of the world about the war - not just through manipulation of the image, but through real changes in the object? This entails confronting ugly realities, and redressing them through thoughtful policies and practical measures.

THERE are at least four areas of wide divergence between U.S. self-perception or self-understanding, and perceptions elsewhere, especially in the Global South. The first is highlighted by Bush's response to the suspicion, distrust and hatred that America inspires: "I just can't believe it because I know how good we are." But millions see the U.S. as an imperial power, which has repeatedly imposed its will upon the world through overt military force or covert operations. This history is so rich that it doesn't need recounting. And yet, America has long had people like Jesse Helms promoting aggressively unilateralist policies, whose incomprehension is as stunning as their hubris: they don't even possess passports because the world outside the U.S. isn't worth visiting!

A second area is the brazen disregard, indeed contempt, with which the U.S. treats international opinion and institutions like the United Nations except when it is expedient to get their endorsement for decisions and actions it has unilaterally taken anyway. The U.S. under Bush has recklessly torn up international treaties, including a protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention and the Kyoto protocol on global warming. It showed such disdain for the Human Rights Commission that it lost its seat on that body. Washington has not even bothered to obtain U.N. Security Council authorisation for the use of armed force in Afghanistan. It had the temerity to tell the Council that it intends to target countries other than Afghanistan too - something that its closest allies, including super-loyal Britain, had no choice but to oppose. Thus, while waging a "global war against terrorism", Washington cannot possibly convince many that it is acting in the universal interests of humanity. Its invocation of the "civilised" world, and now increasingly, the "free world", sounds hollow, self-serving and dangerously duplicitous. Given America's history of world domination to control precious natural resources, it is hard for people to believe it will not pursue its own narrow interests in Central Asian oil if and when it establishes a friendly regime in Kabul.

Third, the U.S. is seen as the principal agency which has consolidated the present unequal global economic order, which has caused suffering and deprivation in more than 100 countries. It is no accident that the policies that have made the world even more skewed than it was a quarter-century ago are called "The Washington Consensus", representing a confluence of interests between the U.S. treasury department, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, reinforced by the World Trade Organisation. The resentment, discontent and anger bred by these policies, and the collapse of state after Third World state caused by them, strongly influence perceptions of the U.S. as the principal cause, agency and guarantor of global injustice and inequality. It is wholly incredible for the U.S. to be speaking for justice in such a world - unless it reforms its policies and role.

Last, but not least, many among the world's 1.2 billion Muslims nurse a grievance against America for depicting Islam as the West's new post-Cold War "civilisational" enemy, and for protecting and colluding with regimes (such as Israel's) which deny Arabs their legitimate rights, especially the right to a Palestinian homeland. Although only a fifth of the world's Muslims live in the Arab world, Palestine has become a symbol of injustice, which provokes strong Muslim emotions everywhere. Equally important is U.S. treatment of the people of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and a host of other Muslim-majority states. The untold suffering visited upon them is a source of powerful popular discontent too.

This is precisely what explains some of Osama bin Laden's ideological appeal. Even a cursory glance at Al Qaeda-related websites would show that bin Laden's programme capitalises on popular resentment at the dispossession, oppression, and daily humiliation of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli state (which has expanded its borders in each war starting 1967); the continued presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, Islam's Holy Land; U.S. exploitation of West Asia's oil, and so on. This "negative" appeal is far more important than the "positive" appeal of Islamic nationalism or pan-Islamism, or of bin Laden's perverse ideal of a "full" Muslim life which consists in fighting and dying for Islam.

Al Qaeda strikes resonance when it attacks the monumentally corrupt Saudi regime with its Wahabbi fundamentalism and its dependence on the U.S., or when it recalls U.S. betrayal of Afghanistan's mujahideen after 1989.

Al Qaeda has no analysis of imperialism. It is basically anti-American, without being critical of economic globalisation, the highly uneven distribution of world power, U.S. cultural domination, or global inequalities. But its anti-American posture strikes a chord.

Al Qaeda is able to convert the largely secular issue of Palestine into an Israeli-U.S. expansionist "conspiracy" against Islam and thus drum up jehadi fervour. By citing the ruthlessness of Israeli and U.S. policies, it tries to legitimise its own ruthlessness and its grotesquely irrational methods of fighting injustice. It is also able to yoke male-supremacist notions of Rambo-style heroism and "martyrdom" to rationalise violence - just as the U.S. media do. Indeed, one of Al Qaeda's greatest triumphs is that it has compelled much of the Western media to work against their own professed commitment to freedom, impartiality and objectivity, and to use double standards on violence.

In the larger, real world, Al Qaeda's irrational appeal cannot be effectively countered without addressing the root-causes of today's global order, to the shaping of which the U.S. has contributed so much. The more the U.S. responds to terror with its own Wild West-style machismo, the more it will strengthen the sources of sub-state terrorism. Changing such an approach means radically altering the power relations on which U.S. dominance is based. Only then can the real war for hearts and minds begin.

What we are likely to see instead is the perpetuation of the present system of domination, and a botched-up, partial, compromised war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which will leave the bulk of their network unaffected and their sources of sustenance virtually intact. Afghanistan will be further brutalised. New power equations will emerge, based on the narrow self-interest of governments, including America's, Pakistan's and India's. But in the absence of radical political reform, the real war of ideas will not be joined.

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