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Media are an obstacle to victory in the "long war'

Can America win a sustained war in this media age? The U.S. military doesn't seem to be too sure.

According to a Pentagon report released earlier this month, "Victory in the long war ultimately depends on strategic communication." The "long war" is the global war on terror.

For his part, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld doesn't offer a whole lot of hope. "Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age," he declared in a recent speech, "but for the most part, we - our country, our government - has not adapted." Those words are worth pausing over. Can it really be true that al-Qaida is beating Uncle Sam at the communications/propaganda game?

Yes, according to Rumsfeld. He cited last year's Newsweek story about the Koran-flushing at Guantanamo, since retracted, as a case study of the bad guys' getting the jump on the good guys: "Once it was published in a weekly newsmagazine, it was posted on Web sites, sent in e-mails and repeated on satellite television and radio stations for days, before the facts could be discovered." Part of the problem, Rumsfeld continued, is that the U.S. government "tends to be reactive, rather than proactive - and it still operates, for the most part, on an eight-hour, five-days-a-week basis, while world events, and our enemies, are operating 24/7, across every time zone." It's a little hard to believe that the Pentagon, which proposes to spend $439-billion next year (not counting the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars), and the rest of the federal government have really let themselves be outwitted by folks operating from safe houses and caves.

But the "long war" is more complicated than a struggle between spin doctors, for two reasons. First, the world's media are fixated on America's faults, and this makes the enemy's task easier. As Rumsfeld observed, the "vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of unauthorized detainee mistreatment at Abu Ghraib" outweighs the coverage devoted to, say, Saddam Hussein's atrocities.

The defense chief has a point, though of course Saddam never claimed to be anything more than a tyrant, while the Americans proclaimed themselves to be champions of human rights - a high standard to live by when operating in a war zone.

The second complicating factor is Arab and Muslim public opinion. Let's be honest: Were we really greeted as liberators in Afghanistan and Iraq? One recent poll found that 88 percent of Sunnis in Iraq support deadly attacks on American troops. And 41 percent of the Iraqi Shiites favor anti-American violence, too. Indeed, the new Shiite-dominated government seems to be closer to Iran than to the United States.

It's possible that there's a pro-American Muslim "silent majority" out there. But the only place in the Arab world to hold free elections of late was the Palestinian territories; won by Hamas.

No wonder Rumsfeld is so gloomy. He may feel that his Pentagon has mastered the battlefield, but by his own stark admission, we are mostly clueless about the planetary mindscape, where the war will be won - or lost.

Special to Newsday