October 17, 2001

The information war


SALT LAKE CITY - President Bush has made it clear that the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. It is diplomatic, cobbling together coalitions in Europe and the Arab world. It is economic, freezing the funds of the terrorists. It is military, the first phase of which has begun in Afghanistan. Now comes the information war.

Since Sept. 11, Americans have been asking in puzzlement: Why do they hate us? Now, the question is: How does the United States dilute, neutralize, and ultimately eradicate that hatred?

In Afghanistan, there is a small beginning. As American planes blast Taliban military facilities, other American planes drop friendly leaflets and packages of food to the Afghan people. President Bush mobilizes American children to send a dollar apiece to suffering Afghan children.

But there is a monumental public relations - or people relations - problem for America across a broad swath of the Islamic world. It does not require a campaign of propaganda in the pejorative sense of the word. It requires an inspired campaign of truth-telling about Americans and their love of democracy, their compassion and their desire to build - as distinct from the hate-based, visionless philosophy of Osama bin Laden, which seeks only to destroy.

If the message is simple and direct, we nevertheless should not be afraid of using the most sophisticated instruments and the most effective sales campaigns of our communications-based society to get it across.

We have a worthy tool, instantly at hand, in the shape of our government-financed radio.

The Voice of America broadcasts news and tells the American story around the world in 53 languages. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty have had a somewhat different mission, acting for captive nations as the kind of local radio service those nations would have, were they free. Voice of America and RFE/RL have been an inspiration for decades to peoples who have yearned for freedom. They have lately been joined by Radio Free Asia, broadcasting to China and other not-yet-free Asian nations.

In Washington last week, legislators on the House International Relations Committee began the business of creating a Radio Free Afghanistan, probably to be run by Radio Free Europe. The Senate likely will hold hearings soon.

This is good, but much more needs to be done. Voice of America, sadly depleted by budgetary cuts, needs support for greater reach and more broadcasting hours throughout the Mideast. The other radios need similar upgrading. Short-wave is still an effective way to reach millions, but more must be reached through AM and FM radio channels, perhaps with a new kind of broadcasting more attuned to younger audiences.

Television is expensive, but critical. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera network has been under fire by the Bush administration recently for broadcasting in their entirety the inflammatory words of bin Laden. But its reach to millions of TV screens throughout the Arab world can also be a vehicle for countervailing viewpoints such as those of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Colin Powell, both of whom have broadcast over its facilities. The U.S. should use Al Jazeera, not give up on it.

Longer term, the U.S. should have an energetic campaign for training programs for Arab journalists, both electronic and print, from non-free societies. Various American journalistic organizations have given their expertise to hundreds of such journalists from other parts of the world over the years.

Radio and TV must be supplemented by communication via the World Wide Web. Wherever possible, American Muslims who abhor bin Laden's tactics should volunteer as interlocutors - and would probably be more credible than non-Muslims. If spontaneous, and not under government auspices, their involvement could be immensely effective.

The U.S. Information Agency has long-run exchange programs, bringing foreign visitors here to take measure of the U.S. and sending interesting Americans overseas.

While such programs might not involve the audiences of millions reached by radio and TV, they have nevertheless built enduring ties between individuals who, in many cases, have risen high in their governments. These programs should be reinvigorated.

This is a time to think in visionary and expansive terms, as we try to communicate the efficacy of American principles through the genius of American technology.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, held senior information positions in the Reagan administration, including director of Voice of America. In 1991 he chaired President Bush's Task Force on U.S. Government International Broadcasting.

Copyright 2001 Christian Science Monitor Service