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Pentagon Faces Challenge of Countering Misperception of US Actions Abroad - 2002-11-07

One of the major challenges facing top Defense officials is not military, but the problem of how to tackle misperceptions about American actions abroad. That is particularly true throughout the Muslim world. An incident this past week in Indonesia points out the depth of the challenge.

Senior administration officials are not normally rattled by any reporter's question.

But Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz appeared momentarily stunned in disbelief this past week when an Indonesian television interviewer asked him whether the United States was connected to last month's bloody terrorist bombing in the resort of Bali.

"That is just totally an unbelievable fantasy. I can not imagine that anybody rational actually believes that," he said.

Mr. Wolfowitz went on to suggest al-Qaida and terrorist groups connected to it were the likely culprits.

"And, in fact, if you go to some of their [Internet] web sites, they are boasting about the attack in Bali," he said. "It is just inconceivable that this was done by the United States, and I can not imagine anybody informed or educated believing that."

Though to Mr. Wolfowitz, the notion of American complicity seemed beyond credulity, allegations in Indonesia of U.S. involvement in the Bali blast are apparently not altogether unusual.

The New York Times, in an article from Jakarta [Thursday], reported the perception among many of the educated elite in Indonesia is not that al-Qaida or an affiliated Muslim group was behind the attack.

Instead, the Times wrote, Indonesians are blaming the Central Intelligence Agency. It reported some Indonesians who believe this think the United States might have used the Bali blast to prod Indonesia to join a possible war against Iraq.

U.S. officials generally link these kinds of false accusations to America's adversaries. Defense officials recall, for example, Iraq's routine claims that U.S. led coalition aircraft are targeting civilians in air-strikes in Iraq's no-fly zones.

For his part, Mr. Wolfowitz related the surprise Indonesian accusation to the much broader claim, often heard in the Middle East, that the U.S. war on terrorism is actually a war on Muslims. Mr. Wolfowitz told his SCTV interviewer all the evidence contradicts that claim.

"What disturbs me is this notion that somehow the United States is at war with Muslims or at war with Islam," he said. "In the 1990s, five different times the U.S. military went to the aid of Muslim people.

"First to the people of Kuwait, who had been conquered by a vicious dictator and were being horribly abused. Then to the aid of the predominantly Kurdish population in northern Iraq, who are overwhelmingly Muslim. Then to the aid of the Bosnians in former Yugoslavia, who were Muslim. Then to the aid of the Kosovo Albanians in Serbia, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, I think entirely Muslim. And also to the aid of the starving people of Somalia, who are all Muslim. No one ever said we were fighting for Islam when we did that, but we happened to be defending Muslim populations," Mr. Wolfowitz went on to say.

Senior defense officials like Mr. Wolfowitz charge that terrorists themselves are the real enemies of Islam. They say the terrorists follow what they consider an extreme and distorted version of the religion to justify not only the killing Americans and other Westerners, but the subjugation of other Muslims.

But as Mr. Wolfowitz acknowledges, the terrorists also hope, through their actions and their misinformation, that they can succeed in driving wedges between the West and the Muslim world.

Analysts say the surfacing of even improbable charges, like the latest one concerning the Bali blast, suggest that division exists and is difficult to bridge.