Success in Iraq Will Transform U.S. World Image

Posted March 5, 2003 at 2:06pm

There’s probably not much that President Bush can say or do to convince world public opinion — and most Democrats — that he’s not a “reckless” foreign policy “cowboy” or “arrogant bully.” [IMGCAP(1)]

He’s just going to have to win the Iraq war in short order and with minimal casualties, hope that Iraqis dance in the streets and then start swiftly building democracy in the Middle East.

That’s what I think, and it’s also more or less the attitude of the White House’s chief of global communications, Tucker Eskew, who told me in an interview, “This isn’t a popularity contest. It’s a test of leadership.”

“You have to bring people around by getting results,” he said. “You have to be consistent with your message, so when you do get results people can put it into a framework.”

By “results,” Eskew says he means “disarming Saddam Hussein and promoting liberty in an area of the world that’s known precious little of it.”

Eskew’s office, created last September as the Iraq policy debate erupted and made permanent in a Bush executive order in January, is a follow-on to the Coalition Information Center that successfully countered anti-U.S. propaganda during the Afghanistan conflict.

Eskew, who was communications director of Bush’s 2000 South Carolina primary campaign, ran the London branch of the CIC, developed by former White House Communications Director Karen Hughes.

Now, his job is to coordinate daily communications on the Iraq crisis emanating from various government agencies, do mid-range message planning and develop long-range strategy.

Eskew insists the administration has studiously timed and energetically executed its information strategy, including the buildup to Bush’s pursuit of Congressional authorization, his United Nations strategy, and, lately, the unveiling of his post-war humanitarian and Mideast democracy initiatives.

He disputes Democrats’ claims that their pressure forced the administration to take the Iraq issue to the United Nations and also develop plans for governing Iraq after a conflict.

“We haven’t been responding to criticism,” he said. “This is all the result of a long, detailed process of interagency thought and planning. It would not have been appropriate to lay out our humanitarian initiative earlier.”

Despite undeniably insistent administration efforts to sell administration policy, the evidence suggests that the sales job has largely failed to convince world public opinion and domestic skeptics.

In late February, for instance, a poll for The Sunday Times of London found that when British citizens were asked who was the greatest threat to world peace, 45 percent named Hussein and 45 percent named Bush.

By a margin of 47 percent to 23 percent, respondents agreed that the United States is “a bully that wants to dominate the world” rather than “a force for good.”

An Ipsos-Reid survey late last year found that in 12 out of 14 countries polled, only about one-third of citizens wanted their governments to be more supportive of U.S. policies.

A Pew Research Center poll last November found that in France, Germany and Russia, majorities of citizens believe that the prime U.S. aim in Iraq is control of its oil.

In the United States, all polls consistently show that about 60 percent of Americans support Bush’s policy, but a January poll by Public Opinion Strategies showed that “core” Democratic primary voters have views similar to those prevailing in Europe.

Fifty-eight percent of these voters believe that Bush is after Iraq’s oil. Sixty-two percent say he’s trying to make up for the fact that his father failed to overthrow Hussein in 1991. And 61 percent say he’s trying to draw attention away from a failed economy.

Such views put leftward pressure on Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom have to find something negative to say about Bush’s foreign policy.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) refers to Bush policy as “reckless,” and even Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who supports Bush on Iraq, accuses him of “engaging the world too haphazardly, too arrogantly and too belatedly.”

Lieberman also jabbed, “When more people around the world see [Bush] as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein, then you know something is really wrong with our foreign policy.”

Eskew professes to see progress in slight upticks in British polling on support for the Iraq war — though it’s contingent on a U.N. authorization of war.

He also points to declarations of support from governments in 30-odd countries, including Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia and most countries in Eastern Europe and the Persian Gulf.

The Bush administration is trying to improve America’s image with a music-and-politics radio station beamed to the Arab world and a proposed Arab satellite network.

In the short run, top U.S. officials are setting a frenetic pace doing interviews with foreign media outlets to explain the U.S. policy.

In the end, though, what counts is whether the United States wins a clean victory in Iraq and uncovers a vast cache of illegal weapons and then sets up a stable government.

We should know whether Bush is a hero or a goat in about six months. Then, of course, he has to handle North Korea and work on peace in the Mideast.