Assalt on the Serbs: Media machine drums home its moral message hits no resistance

The Propaganda War
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The Independent Online
THE SECRETARY of State was on CBS, her deputy was on Fox, the national security adviser was on ABC, the Defense Secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the armed forces were on NBC and CNN.

Yesterday, as every day since Nato military action in Yugoslavia began, the United States administration packed the airwaves with its most senior and loyal officials to drum home the message: our action is just; we have an overriding humanitarian purpose that we are sticking to; the greater purpose is to prevent the conflict in Kosovo escalating into a regional conflagration; our engagement is incontrovertibly in the US national interest.

President Bill Clinton is often described as a permanent campaigner and his administration embarked on its co- ordinated justification for US military involvement over Kosovo in the manner of an all-out political operation.

In the first three days, the Defense Secretary, William Cohen, was on television eight times; the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright - who is said to have argued most strongly for military action - appeared seven times and the national security adviser, Sandy Berger, was seen three times.

Early last week, Mr Clinton heeded calls from advisers to prepare a largely ignorant, but also divided, public not only for action, but for the risk of US losses. Some experts and academics ridiculed his first effort - a planned speech to local government trade-union representatives that he turned into a folksy lecture that could have been called "Where is Kosovo and why it matters" - but many in his audience found it effective.

On Wednesday, within minutes of the announcement from Nato that bombing had begun, Mr Clinton was live on television. That evening, he broadcast again, giving a more refined version of his "Where is Kosovo" lecture, complete with map and pointer.

On Thursday, he was seen in working mode, surrounded by his security team, and spoke briefly to reporters, stressing the humanitarian aspect of Nato action. Both Mr Clinton and Ms Albright - she speaking in Serbo- Croat - recorded television appeals for satellite broadcast to the Balkans.

While the administration's publicity campaign has been energetic and comprehensive, it has been greatly assisted by the lack of vocal opposition to the action so far. Even now, the public appears largely uninterested in events in Yugoslavia, although that could change fast.

Perhaps the most unhappy constituency is that of the reporters, because actual information imparted by the White House and the Pentagon has been limited.

Neither are British minds being taxed with the complexities of the crisis. The Government is pushing the moral aspect; in briefing after briefing, it is stressed that allied aircraft are acting to avert potentially the biggest humanitarian catastrophe on European soil since the Second World War.

The Government's message in the propaganda war - first delivered by Tony Blair in a televised address to the nation last Friday - simply stated, is that we can either act or do nothing, but that doing nothing leads to acts of "genocide", "murder" and "barbarity" against an innocent, helpless people.

"Do nothing," said Mr Blair in his address, "and Milosevic will feel free to do as he likes with the civilian population.These poor defenceless people are begging us to show strength and determination."

Confirmation that that message is getting through came in several newspaper opinion polls yesterday which show that the majority - around two-thirds - of the British public support the air-strikes, despite equal numbers not believing that they will achieve the stated intention of ending Serb repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

The mission is being presented as against evil in a highly personalised form. Just as the Gulf War and its aftermath was about Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, so Mr Blair, George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, and Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, have used sorting out Mr Milosevic as shorthand for solving the Balkans conflict.

The Sun newspaper has gladly pilloried Mr Milosevic as the "Butcher of Serbia" and "Drunk Slobba", a paranoid, manic depressive "who gets through two bottles of spirits a day while sitting alone in the dark".