Bin Laden operation: Military success, PR fiasco?

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The administration’s clashing desires to celebrate the successful killing of America’s enemy but also to mollify jihad-sympathizers has caused repeated media flubs in the days after the Osama bin Laden raid, say PR experts and Islamic-modernizers.

The fumbles are exemplified by the two-day debate over whether to release photographs of bin Laden’s “gruesome” facial wounds. Officials simultaneously argued that any disrespect shown toward bin Laden’s body would spur violence in Muslim countries, but also that bin Laden was not a leader of Muslims.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama seemingly gave a green-light to the release of photographs when he said that “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims…So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.” On Wednesday, Obama backtracked and formally overruled CIA chief Leon Panetta’s push to release the photos. “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of someone shot in the head are not floating around as incitement to additional violence,” Obama said.

The core conflict is the White House’s “desire to kill bin Laden but also to have the world think we did so respectfully and politely,” said Eric Dezenhall, founder of Dezenhall Resources, a PR firm. “I’m in the PR business, and I don’t think guys like me have the alchemy to persuade the public that something is the opposite of what it is,” he said, adding, “spin only gets you so far.”

The photographs of bin Laden exemplify the dilemma because they show him both clearly dead and gruesomely disfigured. On Wednesday, after White House spokesman Jay Carney said the photographs show that bin Laden was shot in the face, he quickly backtracked, saying “he was shot above the neck. Let’s say that.”

“Several days of discussions have shown the administration is not in as much control of the story as they should be,” said Scott Stanzel, a deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, who also painted bin Laden as an unpopular Muslim extremist. Obama’s deputies had plenty of time to make a decision prior to the raid, but their media-related disputes have now blurred their military success, he said.

The administration’s two-sided policy also explains their controversial decision to use Islamic ritual when disposing of his body at sea. “We were absolutely within our rights to go after the most wanted man in the world…it needs to be recognized that this [killing] is seen as a good thing throughout the world,” Carney said Wednesday. “Yet, because of who we are, we took extraordinary measures to show the kind of respect that was shown in his burial,” he added.

“I was offended they wanted to give him religious recognition” after he had killed so many Muslims and non-Muslims, and even after the administration has repeatedly called him a extremist, said Zuhdi Jasser, a former Navy doctor and the Muslim founder of the Arizona-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Jasser, who is seeking to combine Islam with Western ideals of personal liberty, said he would have declined to participate in the Islamic rituals used during the disposal of bin Laden’s corpse.

Regardless of the Navy’s use of the Islamic rituals, numerous Islamic revivalist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliates in Egypt, Gaza and London, have criticized bin Laden’s burial at sea, have called bin Laden a leader, and have lamented his death.

In his Wednesday television interview, Obama added a new explanation for the his refusal to release the photographs. “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies…we don’t need to spike the football.”

Carney repeated this formulation when he was asked how Muslims could be incited to violence if the administration was correct in saying that bin Laden was not a Muslim leader. “As Americans, [we’re] not interested, as the president said, in trotting around photographs as trophies. That’s not who we are, and so we won’t do it,” Carney said.

This claim “reveals a certain discomfort with this side of life….[and] a belief system that says displays of strength are immoral, that it is somehow immoral to defend yourself or neutralize an enemy with force,” even when conducted skillfully and with minimum civilian damage, Dezenhall said.

This post-Vietnam distaste for military success was not shared by Democratic Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, both of whom ruthlessly destroyed the nation’s national-socialist enemies in Germany and Japan, he said. The reluctance to insult bin Laden is also a far cry from President Ronald Reagan, said Delzenhall, who worked in the Reagan White House. In 1985, Reagan described Libyan dictator Col. Gaddafi’s clique as “the strangest collection of misfits, Looney Tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich.”

The administration’s treatment of bin Laden is schizophrenic, said Jasser. Bin Laden was the Islamist leader of an anti-liberal, anti-modern jihad, and the military’s successful operation to kill him should also be used to graphically demonstrate that “the language of jihad in Islam is gone, that it is from a bygone era,” he said. “There’s nothing more empowering to our cause than for the radicals to see their leader in a state of horror and of death,” he told Fox News.

The same tough attitude was voiced by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who tweeted out her call to “Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction. No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama; it’s part of the mission.”

Although Obama said he opposes use of the photos as trophies, he is traveling to New York on Thursday for a televised wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero.