Il Giornale, December 16, 2003
The U.S. Communication strategy
Two hundred people at the Pentagon. Two hundred at the Department of State. And, most of all, two hundred people at the White House. On the whole, six hundred communication experts who are active twenty-four hours a day. It is a task force to which President Bush attributes crucial strategic importance.
It was, in fact, the current President who created, in 2001, the “Office for Global Communications.” This office is responsible for managing the White House’s image in the world. It is led by Dan Bartlett in cooperation with the two current strategists of the U.S. communications effort. The first is Karl Rove, Bush’s personal advisor, who is regarded as the most skilful (and unscrupulous) election strategist in the United States. The second is Karen Hughes, another of the President’s staunchest collaborators, who officially does not work at the White House any longer, but in Texas, from where she continues to provide the White House commander-in-chief with precious advice.
Every single detail is carefully pondered. Even Bush’s “spontaneous” gestures are actually the result of careful study. An example? Pay attention to the dog. From Nixon on, each president has owned one to play with on the beautiful grass of the White House in front of cameras and photographers. Even the places where press conferences are held during visits abroad are always selected with marvellous backgrounds and landscapes in order to ensure good camera shots. And all the most delicate and significant images are also attentively studied.
In recent months, three images have struck the public opinion. The first one is President Bush who, during the final stages of the Iraqi war, was photographed dressed as a pilot on the Lincoln aircraft carrier. The picture looks like a Hollywood movie. On his military overalls the message, “Mission accomplished”, appears in good view. The message is clear: the United States is about to win. The implied purpose is to galvanize the American people. The second scene consists of Bush, snapped while carrying a tray with a huge turkey on it during his surprise visit to Baghdad to spend Thanksgiving with the American troops. In this case, the communication experts’ goal was different and twofold. Firstly, to maintain the country’s morale during a time in which terrorist attacks were reaching their peak. Secondly, to show that the President, who had been criticized for having never attended the funerals of the soldiers killed in Iraq, was close to the troops on the “front-line”. The objective was perfectly attained: by unexpectedly arriving in Baghdad and challenging Saddam’s terrorists while, at the same time, serving turkey to his soldiers, Bush triumphed in the polls. The U.S. President demonstrated his courage and solidarity with those who were risking their lives for “freedom and democracy”.
However, the result is not always positive. It is systematically effective with the American public, but less so with sceptical Europeans and hardly ever with the Arab world. After September 11, Bush hired Charlotte Beers, the queen of marketing, to promote the U.S. image in the Middle East. This was a double mistake. The first one has to do with the fact that Beers is a woman called to plunge herself into an Islamic context which is known to be tendentiously sexist. The second error regards her area of expertise: Beers is specialized in industrial public relations and not cultural, political and religious PR. The result is that in the last two years, the image of the United States has notably worsened within the Arab world. And Beers has been forced to resign.
To avoid repeating the blunders of the last two years — which culminated with the publication of the pictures of Uday and Qusai Hussein’s corpses — the Pentagon and the White House carefully planned the management of the news regarding the capture of Saddam. The plan was known as “Hvt 1” (High Value Target 1). It aimed at transforming the capture into a big media event for Arabs rather than for Americans. This explained why Bush held a low-key speech on Sunday. His announcement, which lasted only four minutes, was too short for an event of historical significance. The only excess was the statement, “We got him”, that was pronounced by Paul Bremer, administrator of the provisional coalition authority in Iraq. But the images themselves commented on the event. “We had to prevent Saddam from appearing as a martyr or a hero,” a source from the Pentagon revealed. And the Pentagon’s objective was indeed reached. Saddam had a long, straggly beard as well as an expression of resignation. “The video portraying him being subjected to a check for lice and a mouth examination shows an ordinary person with his limits and weaknesses,” adds the Pentagon source. It is likely that Saddam was being filmed secretly, and this made the evidence even more authentic. The image of a defeated and powerless man. The first “Arab” masterpiece created by the “Office for the Global Communications”.