White House Is Revising Its War Message
Thursday 3 April 2003
Setbacks Providing Lessons
White House officials struggled this week to retool a war communications blueprint that did not allow for strong Iraqi resistance and overestimated the welcome allied troops would receive.
The administration countered setbacks on the global airwaves by using classic campaign techniques such as dogged repetition of scripted messages and flat denials of dissent. When the war plan itself was under attack, officials tried to regain their footing by saying that the plan was flexible enough to accommodate any eventuality.
"We should have made that part clearer early on," one official said.
President Bush's aides pride themselves on the iron message-discipline they maintained through his candidacy and early years in office, but their techniques have not immediately succeeded when applied to war. Now, Bush's messengers must compete with other sources of information that include reporters embedded with military units, commanders in the field who bluntly speak their minds and a vocal community of retired military officers receiving intelligence from the Pentagon.
Besieged on so many fronts, administration officials all but shut down communication outside formal briefings, with the White House referring many questions to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon referring some of those questions back to the White House.
Historians and political scientists said the administration's approach has the makings of a credibility gap if the Bush team's assertions from their podiums and on Sunday talk shows become too far divorced from the impression the public is getting from the battlefields in Iraq.
"They have been guilty of trying to put a positive interpretation on everything and ignoring the bad news," said Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "That's not the same thing as lying. But I think they misunderstand that acknowledging bad news strengthens your hand because it makes you believable."
Some administration officials said they realized they need to be more forthcoming about U.S. mistakes and civilian casualties than they were during the Afghan war. "It's a lesson we learned from Afghanistan," when the Pentagon's first response to such reports was usually denial, one official said.
Another administration official said Bush's aides know they need to get information out faster. "I don't think anybody overtly sought to obscure reality," the official said. "They just thought the plan was really good."
Officials said they still must improve their outreach to Arab audiences, a primary goal of their war messaging, by offering more Arab-speaking officials to networks serving the Persian Gulf area this week, and the White House sent a communications official to London to try to reach Arab audiences there.
Officials planned an intricate Iraq information strategy and created the White House Office of Global Communications to improve the U.S. image overseas after the nasty months of diplomacy that led up to the war.
That office has focused on the ways language influences attitudes. Several days after military briefers began using "Fedayeen" to describe Iraqi militias loyal to President Saddam Hussein, the office stepped in to remind them that the word "has almost heroic implications" in Arabic that might undercut their propaganda efforts in the Arab world, an administration official said.
Word went out last week to refer to Iraqi fighters in urban guerrilla battles against U.S. forces as "terrorists," "death squads" and "thugs." The new language has sought to reinforce the connection between Hussein and international terrorism by emphasizing reports that the Iraqis were using women and children as shields, fighting out of civilian hospitals and schools, and using suicide bombers.
Much of this new language is directed at overseas audiences. An administration official said Americans, by and large, "don't even need to be told" about a car bombing more than a few times. "You mention it a couple of times and the light bulb goes off," the official said. "In other parts of the world, labeling helps to put it in perspective."
The administration's campaign-style approach was on display Tuesday morning when the Pentagon sent its daily update to Capitol Hill with no mention of the seven civilians who had been shot to death by American soldiers at a checkpoint in Iraq. The incident was dominating news coverage. Instead, the talking points said coalition forces "continue to make good progress toward our objectives," and asserted that local populations "are becoming increasingly willing to assist coalition forces."
At the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer was telling reporters that Bush's conclusion from his briefings was that "slowly but surely the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people are being won over as they see security increase in their area." That afternoon, Fleischer described a sharp administration dispute over how to distribute aid and run postwar Iraq as "discussions that are routine around here, that involve the various agencies."
Part of the media strategy has been to focus attention on the Pentagon and limit the public appearances of other senior officials, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Leaving messages to the Pentagon has not been without its problems. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appeared to grow more and more testy as criticism of the war plan increased. And when Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, in charge of the Iraqi reconstruction effort for the Pentagon, appeared to get out in front of his bosses in scheduling appearances last week, the White House moved to rein him in, officials said. Reporters' calls to Feith's office are now referred to the National Security Council staff, where rules against unmonitored conversations with reporters have been reinforced. At the State Department, officials at all levels are given daily guidance on what subjects to emphasize and what to avoid, and are generally told to limit their comments to the media.
After nearly two weeks of discouraging news from Iraq, the White House viewed yesterday as an excellent message day. There were new details on the rescue of prisoner of war Jessica Lynch by U.S. Special Operations forces. For the first time, video footage showed substantial numbers of Iraqi civilians, in the city of Najaf, welcoming U.S. troops.
American military units, described in news reports over the past week as bogged down outside Baghdad, closed in on the Iraqi capital. A military briefer crowed that a division of Hussein's Republican Guard had been "destroyed." Previously scheduled briefings on U.S. humanitarian aid were held in Washington, at Central Command headquarters in Qatar and at a London office of the State Department that is charged with serving Arab news outlets.
"We are going to win militarily," an administration official said. "But you can't separate the political track from that."
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