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On Point

"HA and HE"


by Austin Bay

Dub the U.S. and British air effort over Afghanistan a campaign of "HA and HE," humanitarian aid and high explosive.

The one-two punch of food and smart bombs, airlift and airstrike, illustrates both means and methods America will pursue as the counter-terror war evolves. Those who choose to cooperate in America's war for collective security will benefit. Those who obstruct and resist will pay a steep price.

But the art of this two-track war is more than offering a care-package carrot in lieu of a stick of iron bombs.

Actions create facts -- rubble where the World Trade Center once stood is a terrible fact. For a starving Hazari refugee in Afghanistan's central highlands, the 2,300 calories in a USAID "Humanitarian Daily Ration" are blessed facts that make the difference between health and starvation.

How these and similar facts are communicated (or not communicated) amid wartime's chaos and uncertainty deeply affects every nation's (or organization's) ability to successfully wage war.

Unfortunately, "propaganda" has a dark connotation. Still, "propaganda war" may be a more instructive term than "information war."

Enemies have different stories to tell and sell. Frankly, winning the counter-terror war requires smart bombast, as well as smart bombs.

It's a battle America must engage and win.

Steely ideologues like Osama bin Laden can be very tough opponents. Absolute certainty, rage and brazen contempt often impart an initial emotional advantage, though over time the childish aspects of those qualities usually become a liability.

Still, bin Laden is pursuing a shrewd propaganda campaign, albeit one the United States is countering, with varying degrees of effectiveness:

-- Let's call the first bin Laden propaganda gambit "the battle for God." The "battle for Divine Sanction" is central to bin Laden's notion of a "globalized war of Islam against America."

At the moment, this battle rates as a draw, which indicates in the long run bin Laden will lose it. Despite attempts to stir simultaneous "Muslim uprisings" in the aftermath of Sept. 11, no significant mass actions have occurred. Isolated riots aren't what bin Laden wanted. Here's why the gambit failed: The Muslim world is as politically, ethnically, and religiously fissured and fractured a landscape as any on Earth. Many Muslims don't subscribe to bin Laden's theology. Muslim clerics, often at great personal risk, are beginning to openly contest bin Laden. Numerous clerics argue the Koran forbids the murder of innocent civilians.

-- Bin Laden has stated a key Al Qaeda goal is to destroy "the myth of American might." Blasting the Pentagon was supposed to demonstrate America's secret weakness and rally the "disaffected" to his cause.

This bin Laden ploy has flopped. The terror attacks unified America with resolve reminiscent of 1945. Although the United States is the most powerful nation the planet has ever known, battling bin Laden's murders requires diplomacy and vision, not irrational demands for revenge. U.S. actions and an hour-by-hour effort to publicize them (via the global information grid) very effectively countered the bin Laden gambit.

-- Bin Laden says his violent actions give "voice to the voiceless." This pitch is primarily directed toward the Arab world's sense of historical grievance and purloined dignity. Bin Laden wraps the "defense of Palestine" and the claim he acts on behalf of "a million innocent children ... killed in Iraq without any guilt" in this assertion. (Al Qaeda's October statement emphasized this propaganda line and leveraged President Bush's blunder of initially describing the U.S. effort as a "crusade.")

America isn't responsible for the Arabs' historical failure -- lay that on the Turks, Mongols, Brits and Arabs themselves. But "it's America's fault" was a line pushed by the Soviets during the Cold War, and Islamists have linked that four-decade propaganda campaign to their eight centuries of decline.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the hard fact energizing this bit of bin Laden and radical Islamist agitprop. Ironically, the Palestinian Authority is distancing itself from Al Qaeda. Washington needs to encourage that policy.

Washington can't erase embedded myth, but it can mitigate some of its more dire effects. America does a poor job of touting its generosity. Military historian Dr. A.A. Nofi says between U.S. government and American private food aid programs, America makes up a substantial "food deficit" in more than 50 countries.

U.S. spokespeople need to be on Al Jazeera (Qatar's Arabic satellite television service), emphasizing America's aid programs.

Lunch for the planet's hungry is often the no-thanks-necessary charity of generous Americans -- and that's a fact, in peace and in war.

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