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Friday, March 26, 1999 Published at 09:36 GMT

Analysis: The war of words - a parallel battle

Kosovar refugees. Nato is claiming a humanitarian cause

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

Alongside Nato's efforts to bomb Belgrade into submission, another battle is unfolding - the fight for public opinion.

Kosovo: Special Report
Initial reaction among Americans has been broadly supportive. An opinion poll carried out after the first night of attack found 50% in favour of the action, and 39% opposed.

But this is strictly qualified support, as the results show. The American public insists its own casualties must be low and ground troops must not engage in combat, according to the USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll.

A UK-only telephone poll by the BBC's Ceefax, which received more than 17,000 calls, resulted in a 2:1 bias against the bombings.

"At the moment opinion is rather soft, and liable to fluctuate. But it will harden up over the coming days," says Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies.

Quite which side it falls depends on Nato's success or otherwise at bringing Slobodan Milosovic to heel.

[ image: Bill Clinton addressing the nation on Wednesday]
Bill Clinton addressing the nation on Wednesday
If, as many commentators have said, loss of life among Nato military is highly likely if the attacks stretch beyond a few days, it looks as though Bill Clinton and his fellow alliance leaders could be in for a rough ride.

Mr Clinton's team has been working hard to "sell" military action to the electorate, in particular pushing the "humanitarian" argument, says Mr Rogers.

In his address to the nation on Wednesday evening, the American president said it was a "moral imperative" for Nato to act.

"We are being told that this action is necessary to prevent a greater disaster down the line," says Mr Rogers.

Indeed, Mr Clinton used a highly emotive example to persuade people of just such an argument, comparing inaction to the policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler before World War II.

[ image: Inaction now would be tantamount to appeasing Hitler in the 1930s, said Clinton]
Inaction now would be tantamount to appeasing Hitler in the 1930s, said Clinton
Despite the grimness of events, he also deployed his folksy repartee to full effect in an effort to win over the American public on Tuesday. "This is not a slam dunk," he said, putting aside prepared notes, " didn't just hire me to make easy decisions"

Mindful that many would be largely ignorant about where exactly the world's latest hot-spot is, he urged Americans, "literally to go get down an atlas and look at the map".

He took this further on Wednesday evening, telling the nation that the distance between Kosovo and Italy was less than that between New York and Washington.

The veteran peace campaigner Bruce Kent is in no doubt that "a full propaganda war" is now underway. Quite why it's necessary though, he is unsure.

Scepticism increasing

"I just think most people are apathetic about this sort of thing now. You sit back watching flashes in the distance on TV, and are you looking at Star Trek or Baghdad," he says.

Tim Wallis, of the National Peace Council, disagrees that there is widespread indifference, saying that people are increasingly sceptical of the need for military intervention.

[ image: Bruce Kent: A propaganda war is in full flow]
Bruce Kent: A propaganda war is in full flow
"Public opinion has shifted a lot to our point of view," he says, pointing out that the opinion polls which followed last year's bombing of Iraq, showed both Americans and British to be "luke warm".

The "propaganda" therefore is key to any success. "They wouldn't have to do that if the public were behind it in the first place."

Critics of Mr Kent would say that dissenters also have a voice. But he suggests that in Britain many influential charities face a de facto gag.

"They are afraid of offending their members and supporters, and of losing their charitable status," says Mr Kent.

Public believes the official line

And he senses the public now readily believes the official line, that the way to deal with force is hit back harder.

"We've got noisy neighbours in our street but you don't go round and clobber them, you talk and negotiate."

But if Serbia intends to wrong-foot the enemy in this battle of words, its decision to expel all journalists from Nato countries is in stark contrast to the direction preferred by Iraq.

Iraq pursued different tactic

In the air strikes on Iraq last December, Baghdad sought to accommodate foreign reporters, seeing them as vital to putting the "other" side of the story.

However, Belgrade still appears willing to play the information game, using its official news agency to relay Mr Milosovic's comments, and its diplomatic representatives to spread the word abroad.

Clearly, whatever the developments in the air and on the ground, lines on the propaganda battlefield are shifting just as fast.

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