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Lies Can Come Back to Hurt You

22 February 2002

The Pentagon has created an Office of Strategic Influence, according to the news from Washington, and is now in the process of discussing just who is to be disinformed, about what. The office was set up during the fighting in Afghanistan as the administration began to be concerned about losing support for its "war on terrorism" in foreign countries, particularly Muslim countries.

The reports say there is some opposition within the Pentagon to plans for using some false and misleading reports where that might help the United States, and the White House has not yet given final approval for that. So it can be assumed that this is another example of a hidden policy debate on how to shape public opinion.

The deliberate leak about the possibility of using misinformation to sway opinion shows that at least some of the people involved are aware of the risks.

In many ways, the battle of words, of attitudes, of sympathies is the major confrontation in this struggle against terrorism. The battle can be decisive at crucial points. So the Pentagon has decided that it should be involved. The question is how, and it is useful to give this some airing before too much damage is done to credibility.

These are difficult and subtle issues. Normally it is the State Department and the U.S. Information Service which deal with the effort to move public response and create favorable image. The effort is called public diplomacy. Ostensibly it is merely a service to provide official information, but all countries - and corporations, organizations, institutions and many individuals who have a stake in how they are perceived by the public - make an effort to look good and hide flaws.

Still, in theory at least, "strategic influence" should be inherent in the sense of the project. If it takes lies to appear convincing, there is reason to doubt the effective value of the influence.

After an initial chorus of support, there has been a swelling resonance of complaint about some U.S. actions and plans. Washington is right to pay attention to what allies and partners think, perhaps all the more so because this isn't much of a military coalition, so the participation has to be made more evident.

There is a range of concerns that the United States must deal with, and they are sometimes contradictory. Nobody expects Washington to listen to everybody's objections, but the suggestion that reasons and facts can be invented if the real ones aren't good enough is worrisome.

The metaphor of a war on terrorism can be carried dangerously far, particularly in a military context; there is a temptation to justify whatever means are required by the all-important end of victory. In this conflict, such an approach would lead to defeat rather than triumph of the values that President George W. Bush repeatedly cites.

For a few weeks, the United States was fighting a war in Afghanistan, and the confused but increasingly insistent rumbles from Washington make it sound as if in a few more weeks it will be at war with Iraq. If so, a great deal of the reaction depends on how the violence starts, and how the war is conducted. Not much bland tolerance can be expected for some kind of elaborate scenario that would seek to make it look as if Saddam Hussein shot first.

The war between Israel and the Palestinians, which has now reached such a steady level of well-armed violence that it can only be called a war, adds enormously to the political and diplomatic complication.

Bush has not quite endorsed the extreme retaliatory measures that Israel takes daily for Palestinian murders, and he has not quite accepted the isolation of Yasser Arafat as another terrorist leader. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has assimilated Arafat and Osama bin Laden in such a way that the terrorist label is hard to remove. This puts America on the opposite side for many Arabs.

That is probably the biggest barrier to "strategic influence," and it won't yield easily. But there is an even more important stake that must dictate resistance to the temptation to falsify a way around it. It is the essential defense of America's credibility. The lies of the Vietnam War and Vietnam diplomacy gravely harmed both America's position in the world and its government's reliability in the eyes of the American people, to an extent from which it has not yet recovered. Short-term advantage of deception cannot be worth another great loss.

If "strategic influence" is to be achieved it had better be straightforwardly, or the cost will be excessive.

Flora Lewis
Published in the International Herald Tribune © 2002 the International Herald Tribune

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