As American jets took to the air over Afghanistan Sunday morning, Taliban, al-Qaeda and Western leaders took to the airwaves for the real war.
At 1 p.m. EST, President Bush went on live TV to announce “Operation Enduring Freedom.” His statement was excellently timed to coincide with the NFL; Bush maximized his audience by greeting millions of Americans looking for football.
Bush’s speech was dull and predictable, but that didn’t matter. Behind him, viewers could make out the Jefferson Memorial, birds flying and tourists on the Mall.
It was a beautiful day in America.
The scene in Afghanistan was not as welcoming. Two hours after the United States unleashed hell on the beleaguered state, Osama bin Laden appeared on worldwide television. His statement, which had been embargoed until after the U.S. attacked, was wandering and confusing. He looked thin and tired. He desperately needed a teleprompter.
In 1991, Americans learned that Suddam Hussein was alive and well when he appeared on Iraqi TV surrounded by children. Hussein was savvy enough to understand the importance of softening his international image. Unfortunately for the tyrannical dictator, the children were visibly terrified of him, and the photo-op backfired.
But at least Hussein tried.
If bin Laden were the least-bit media-savvy, he could have begun to repair the public-relations damage inflamed by Bush’s demonizing. Instead, bin Laden wore military garb and appeared before symbolically cold rocks. His hand-held microphone was a nice touch – politicians hoping to connect with people have long grabbed the mic – but was not enough to overcome the ominous AK-47 in the corner.
Following Bush and bin Laden, most people (and networks) turned to the battles raging on the NFL gridiron. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Taliban Foreign Minister Mohammed Qassem Halimi and U.S. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld appeared as part of their respective side’s second airwave assaults. Again, the West won, as Rumsfeld and Blair appeared confident and human while the Afghanis failed to make a connection.
It may be unreasonable to expect bin Laden to wage a decent public-relations battle. Bush tells us it is illegal to even own a television in Afghanistan. It is unlikely bin Laden understands the incredible persuasive ability of television, or how greatly free people rely on superficial TV images to form public opinion.
The war against terrorism will not be won in Afghanistan. It will require a revamping and globalization of Western intelligence networks and a new international security order that involves every state. Such a battle will be won only by gaining and maintaining world public opinion.
It will take days to sort out who won the first air battles of “Operation Enduring Freedom.” But after Sunday morning, it’s clear the United States is winning the more important war for public support.
Alexander Conant ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in economics