WASHINGTON -- On Monday, President Bush will greet 50 ambassadors from Muslim countries who will munch dates and sip juice, then kneel and touch their foreheads to the floor of the White House's East Reception Room. The five-minute prayer by Bush's guests will mark the breaking of a daily sunrise-to-sundown fast during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins this weekend.
The prayer and the traditional meal to follow are part of a global effort by the U.S. government, which is struggling to build support in Muslim countries for its antiterrorism coalition, to convey a better image to the 1.2 billion followers of the world's fastest-growing religion. White House and State Department officials said the administration wants to use the occasion of Ramadan to highlight its sensitivity to Islamic tradition and its increasing humanitarian deliveries in Afghanistan.
"It will be hard to miss that we recognize and respect this time in their religion," said Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. "Mutual respect is the beginning of every dialogue. It's taking advantage of an important time in their history to say, 'We understand, we hear you, and we would like to keep this dialogue open.' "
The public relations offensive results from a White House decision to apply political campaign tactics to war communications. The administration has created a war room, formally called the Coalition Information Center, headed by a "strategic theme team" that generates daily and weekly talking points. Plans call for focusing on the Taliban and women's issues, "Taliban lies," the Taliban and the drug trade and, for Thanksgiving, the "Taliban vs. humanitarian supplies."
The center, in the Executive Office Building here, is the hub of a 24-hour operation -- with branches next to 10 Downing Street in London and at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan -- to bridge continents and time zones to push the coalition's views. The center opened Oct. 26 in response to concerns that the coalition was failing in the image war. Two dozen people are working in Washington, two dozen are in London, and a Bush administration official, Greg Jenkins, landed this week in Islamabad to shepherd news crews into refugee camps and other places where officials expect to see evidence of U.S. aid.
Jim Wilkinson, a Navy reservist who runs the war room here, once focused on administration communications about such domestic priorities as the budget, Social Security and energy. He now finds himself answering 5 a.m. calls about Osama bin Laden videos.
"At any given hour, somewhere in the world, journalists are on deadline," he said. "This war has a 24-hour news cycle, and it needs an around-the-clock mechanism to communicate."
Peter Reid, first secretary of press and public affairs at the British embassy here, now sits nearly elbow-to-elbow with Wilkinson. Reid said that during the Kosovo bombing campaign, his government saw the effectiveness of having officials from partner countries in one room at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "Our job is to make sure the facts get out there, and not give free rein to the lies," Reid said.
The Bush administration had rebuffed entreaties from an essential ally, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to forswear bombing during Ramadan, posing the potential for a public relations fiasco just when Bush was trying to convince skeptics in the Middle East that he's fighting terrorists, not Muslims.
"One of the things that became clear to us ... is that we had a real deficit in the Arab world to fight against," a senior administration official said. "For so long, our basic, fundamental viewpoints have been absent: the millions of Muslims who live happily in America, the millions of people who want to come here, our respect for religion. Those are the kind of things which over the longer term we want to be out there with, so that when there's a crisis in the region, we don't begin with such an incredible deficit of understanding."
With Taliban strongholds collapsing by the day, senior administration officials said they hope to persuade Muslims worldwide that these military triumphs amount to humanitarian victories. U.S. officials will try to associate the holy month with images of Afghans celebrating new freedoms and welcoming rescue supplies.
After the Monday prayer, Bush plans to hold an Iftar dinner -- a breaking of the fast -- in the State Dining Room for ambassadors from more than 50 countries that are part of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international group that promotes Muslim rights. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to hold an Iftar dinner of his own, officials said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.