Losing the War of Words on Libya

After some days without a public appearance there he was, black sunglasses firmly in place, playing chess with the head of the International Chess Federation in Tripoli. An easy metaphor perhaps, but with an unmistakably clear message: Muammar el-Qaddafi will take on the best in the world, and win.

Images like this, reinforced by the Libyan leader’s words and deeds, form part of a powerful story. It’s all about winning hearts and minds. And by any measure Qaddafi understands how to communicate a good story. He understands it, seemingly, much better than the NATO-led coalition, now in the fourth month of U.N.-sanctioned military operations against his small country.

Here’s how Qaddafi tells that story: He is in power, and in control. Should he leave the country, Libya will dissolve into untold chaos. He says the Libyan people love him. The “colonialist crusader aggressors” (that’s NATO) are not protecting civilians; they are massacring them.

Every day a barrage of pictures of bombed mosques, sad-eyed children in wrecked schools or wounded civilians and corpses in hospitals appear in Libyan and international media. A Qaddafi spokesman claims nearly 800 Libyan civilians have been “martyred” and more than 4,000 wounded so far. Are the numbers correct? Who knows. Does it influence perceptions? You bet.

Qaddafi’s unflinching response to the Atlantic alliance’s far superior military power, combined with images of dead and dying Libyans, doesn’t play well with the intervention’s many critics. The African Union recently called for an end to the NATO air strikes — citing in part the need to prevent further civilian casualties. Russia has also repeatedly criticized the alliance’s use of disproportionate force and the mounting civilian casualties. And, of course, there is always the possibility that, faced with a long stalemate, internal cohesion in NATO will falter.

So where are the countries of NATO in this, with all their communications resources? There are regular tallies of bombs dropped, dry press conferences at NATO headquarters in Brussels or in Naples, video of NATO fighter jets screaming through the skies on Libyan missions. NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has been very active — providing comment or reaction almost daily in international media.

Taken all together, the overriding message is: The nations of NATO stand united to help the Libyan people. Will this influence perceptions? It’s a very earnest story. What it is not, any way you slice it, is compelling and engaging. It may win minds, but it certainly won’t win hearts.

Where is NATO’s counternarrative to colonialist crusaders massacring innocent civilians ? A number of non-NATO members, including three Arab countries, are participating in the intervention — why don’t we see images of their generals side by side with NATO generals? And who are the rebels — the band of fighters NATO is supporting with air strikes so they can hold off Qaddafi’s forces?

The conflict is four months old and stories from behind the rebel lines are just now starting to drift out. If Qaddafi can get reporters safely to certain areas, surely NATO rebel “advisers” in Benghazi can help reporters as well.

And where is the world-wide support for the citizens of Libya and what NATO is doing for them? It is most certainly out there. In my hometown of Toronto, the local public radio morning show has featured a number of inspiring interviews with Libyan-Canadians who have risked their lives returning to Libya for short periods of time to help in places like hospitals. Could Brussels, with its huge international staff, find and build on these stories around the world?

To be clear, this is not to suggest that the NATO allies resort to propaganda. Still, the NATO-led coalition must and — as these few examples show — can make a more compelling case for the Libyan intervention. NATO has the high moral ground here: Qaddafi is a brutal dictator. He has repressed, tortured and killed his own people for four decades. He has financed and supported international terrorist attacks. He is a threat to international peace and security. The world will be a safer place without him in control of Libya. The global community has decided to step in to protect innocent civilians from suffering further harm. NATO is preventing Qaddafi from winning this conflict with weapons. He should not be allowed to win it with words.

Lynda Calvert, a visiting scholar at the NATO Defense College in Rome

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