George W. Bush didn't have to worry too much about making his case
to the American people for taking military action in Afghanistan - that
was done for him on September 11. After living through the events of
that day, the American public overwhelmingly supported his efforts to
punish and destroy those responsible for that tragedy.
Now Bush has begun talking tough about another likely target, Iraq. But
if he wants to carry the war to another region - one that has not yet
been closely linked to the attacks of September 11 or terrorism in
general in the minds of Americans - it will take more than tough talk
and swagger to ensure the support of the public.
Bush should be linking Iraq to the events of September 11 and the threat
of continued terrorism now, so whatever action he takes later will seem
a natural extension of the current (and very popular) activity in
Afghanistan, not just a case of military opportunism. The evidence is
there, but who aside from news junkies and administration officials are
aware of it?
How many Americans know that Iraqi intelligence officials met with
September 11 mastermind Mohammed Atta mere days before the attacks? Or
that training camps in Iraq are known to have taught its students how to
hijack planes using knives, as Atta and his accomplices did?
There's more. In the spring of 1993, Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate
former president George Bush, and he has not allowed UN weapons
inspectors inside his country in three years. If that doesn't make it
clear that going after Saddam is self-defense - not just taking care of
old leftovers - nothing will. The US government needs to publicize the
facts now if it wants the US public to support military action in Iraq
Iraq is a PR minefield for Bush. As the unabashedly protective son of
Hussein's nemesis, Bush is wide open to accusations of merely wanting to
settle old scores. And his tough talk - telling reporters Saddam "will
find out" what will happen to him if he doesn't re-admit weapons
inspectors - only adds to the impression that he is just a guy looking
to get even. Such accusations might be unfair. But in this case, what
Americans don't know can hurt them - and the President.
Luckily for the administration, this will be a PR challenge more easily
met than the one it's currently facing overseas. Bush needs to deploy
his deputies - Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice - to
make the case on Sunday morning talk shows, the Today show, and on CNN.
This could "soften up the ground" for Bush to make the case himself the
next time he breaks into prime time for a press conference or a
Time and again, administration officials have reminded us that this will
be a long-term conflict, and that we need to think on those terms. If
that is true for the fighting, it is true for communications, too. If
Iraq is next - or even in the foreseeable future - the time to begin
preparing the public is now.