It is tough to imagine a cigar-chomping general planning this
salvo, but American planes began this latest war by dropping not just
bombs on Afghanistan, but also food. While that image-softening tactic
may have never been taught at West Point, it reflects a strategic idea
that has evolved with the information age: In wartime, PR counts.
But words can go awry just as missiles can, and with so much at stake,
isn't it worth asking: How goes the PR campaign?
The country appears girded for conflict, with support for President Bush
nearly unanimous. Yet both the White House and the Defense Department
seem uncertain about what to say. The diplomatic scramble to build a
coalition and reassure the Muslim world may reveal why. We want not only
to be feared, we want to be liked.
And that's where the danger lies. Detente is one thing when the guns are
cold, but in a hot war it becomes folly. A decade of peace has left
America tranquil in how we use language to describe our conflicts. China
is not an opponent, it's a strategic competitor. Tropical Africa isn't
despotic, it's underdeveloped. Taliban leaders aren't backward, they're
But dialogue with zealots is pointless. So if this war is going to
involve words, then the oldest rule of combat certainly applies: Let's
When staring down a threat, nothing resonates more than direct, candid
language. America has given more in foreign aid to the poor in the
Muslim world, including Afghanistan, than any other country. So say it.
We have come to the rescue of Muslim countries like Bosnia, Kuwait, and
Say that even louder.
What's harder, but even more crucial, is not having any hesitation about
demonizing our enemies. Yes, that's right. Call them evil and describe
it graphically. Tell the world that our enemies believe in stoning
others to death, are opposed to music, treat women savagely, and stage
mass public executions and amputations. That's demonic. We should shout
that fact and show the footage on national television.
Straight talk braces us against the horrors of war and staves off
During the inevitable down times, it will be tempting to wonder whether
it's all worth it. To that unsteady worry, the country must yell back a
So, whether it is caution or awkwardness, the administration's eagerness
to get off on the right foot shouldn't have to mean tip-toeing. In
war-time, you don't walk on eggshells, you stomp them.
- Eric Dezenhall is president of Nichols-Dezenhall Communications, a
crisis communications firm in Washington, DC. He served on the
communications staff in the Reagan White House.