Jamie Shea, NATO's Persuasive Force
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 10, 1999; Page C1
BRUSSELS In contrast to the other weapons used in NATO's high-tech war against Yugoslavia, Jamie Shea is an anachronism, a rhetorical Gatling gun in an era of precision-guided munitions and poll-tested political manipulation.
But since the bombing campaign began 2½ months ago, it was Shea, the spokesman at NATO headquarters here, who came to personify the alliance and its campaign against Slobodan Milosevic.
Each day at 3 p.m., Shea, 45, would wade through a platoon of television cameras, some hapless general in tow, and unleash another verbal barrage against Milosevic and his campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The daily "Punch and Judy show," as he called it, was an idiosyncratic blend of press briefing, homily, university lecture and theatrical performance, delivered in an East London cockney accent that gave little hint of the Oxford PhD on his re»sume». His voice would alternate between lip-curling sarcasm and moral indignation as he likened Milosevic to Harry Houdini, Louis XIV, Al Capone and Saddam Hussein.
Yesterday, with Yugoslav generals signing an agreement to withdraw Serb forces from Kosovo, NATO planned to move its media operation to Macedonia, giving Shea one more turn today as an international media star. But while it lasted, the daily briefing here was on-the-job training for a 50-year-old military alliance fighting its first war and a spokesman who had never had such a demanding audience.
A part-time college professor, Shea never missed a chance for alliteration. ("Yesterday we bombed the brains behind the brutality in Kosovo.") Or literary allusion: In one three-week period, he drew inspiration for NATO's military campaign from Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Frederick the Great, Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain, Elie Wiesel, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.
Although the briefing is ostensibly held for the media, it was always clear that Shea's primary targets were elsewhere in the living rooms of the 19 NATO countries, where the defection of even one government could shatter the resolve of the alliance, and in Belgrade, where he hoped to nourish dissension among Yugoslavia's elite.
By the standards of modern spin, Shea was not well suited to this assignment. But as the author of a doctoral thesis on the role of European intellectuals in marshaling public opinion in favor of the First World War, he is a clever student of what he refers to as "mass persuasion techniques."
"What history shows is that there has never been such a thing as a popular war," says Shea. "Even a just conflict inevitably brings out those who say that it isn't going fast enough or the price in terms of casualties is too high. As time goes on, there is the inevitable impatience to get it over with. That was certainly true in World War I and even the Second World War wasn't totally popular far from it."
The son of a sewing machine repairman and the first in his family to earn a university degree, Shea started at NATO in 1980 as a note-taker at the weekly meetings of the normally underworked and overfed ambassadors. After a few years running the alliance's youth programs and international conferences, he was tapped in 1988 to write speeches and give policy advice to a succession of secretaries general. In 1993 he was promoted to official spokesman.
In the European tradition, the assignment is not usually one of high visibility; continental politicians prefer to assume the limelight themselves. For Shea, that meant providing background briefings to a handful of reporters who came to appreciate his knowledge of NATO military policy and his refreshing candor about the internal politics of the alliance.
But since the first cruise missile roared into Belgrade on March 24, Shea has been performing live on all-news networks around the world. With his blue eyes and his mop of gray hair, he became the official NATO cheerleader and a lightning rod for criticism from within and outside the alliance.
In France, where Shea's fluent French is widely noticed, his new status was heralded with the debut of a Jamie Shea puppet on a much-watched TV satire show. In London the tabloids and broadsheets have been in a row over whether someone with a "barrow-boy" accent should be speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's navy and air force. In the United States he's appeared in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury."
Sitting in his cramped office recently, Shea professed to be alternately amused and taken aback by his newfound celebrity.
"I hope this is one of those things that fades like a summer tan," he says.
Others might have become the public face of NATO's war. During the Persian Gulf War, for instance, commanding general Norman Schwarzkopf captured the public imagination. But where Schwarzkopf could be charmingly folksy even while putting a restive press corps in its place, his Balkan counterpart, Gen. Wesley Clark, comes off as brittle, unable to disguise his distrust of the reporting class.
In many respects, the Pentagon has been a richer and more reliable source of information about the war than NATO headquarters, because much of the planning is done there and 90 percent of the military assets at NATO's disposal are American. And at the State Department, the "other Jamie" spokesman Jamie Rubin surely knows more than Shea about the daily high-level discussions among Washington, London, Paris and Bonn, in which the key military and diplomatic decisions are made.
But Rubin says it is important that Shea took the lead to avoid the "knee-jerk anti-Americanism" that might have sapped public support for the campaign.
"I have to say that, despite some of his more unorthodox methods, he's been extremely effective in justifying the use of force," Rubin says.
The reviews on Shea's performance have not always been so upbeat.
In April, after an embarrassing incident in which it took four days to get the story straight about a NATO military attack on a convoy of Albanian refugees, teams of spin doctors were flown in from the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany. They decamped in two rooms down the hall from Secretary General Javier Solana's office and set up the kind of operation that has become standard in American political campaigns: elaborate systems to track and summarize news coverage, prep sessions for Shea before his daily briefings, twice-daily conference calls to hammer out a "message" for each 12-hour news cycle.
Kept in the dark by Clark and his staff about the military mishaps, Shea would initially dissemble as long as he could, then follow up with abject apologies. But under orders from the imported experts, regret was expunged from NATO's briefing vocabulary, replaced with a more combative line that war is hell and civilian casualties are the inevitable cost of standing up to a genocidal bully.
"It was a real problem for us," says Shea. "I'm not saying that in the instance where NATO strikes go wrong, these aren't legitimate news stories. Of course they are. They were dramatic, unexpected, with pictures of real human suffering and tragedy. But at the same time, every day, there were thousands of people being driven from their homes in Kosovo, more villages burned, more women raped, more men and boys killed and tortured and no live video for the evening news."
Shea tried to make up in passion and prose what he could not supply in pictures. A report from allied intelligence about the digging up of mass graves to avoid prosecution for war crimes prompts an extended recitation from "Macbeth" ("Out, out, damn spot . . ."). A point about the need to bomb power plants in Yugoslavia turns into a lesson on what Queen Elizabeth said to the Duke of Essex at the outset of the Irish campaign ("Strike the trunk and the branches will wither away").
Perhaps the sharpest criticism of Shea was delivered two weeks ago by John Keegan, a respected British military historian. "He has been no support to [Gen. Clark], who understandably feels that, while Shea has been turning himself into a media star, the reality of the war has not been communicated at all," Keegan wrote in London's Daily Telegraph.
Shea concedes he still has a lot to learn but makes it clear he's not about to be reined in, either by generals or media experts.
"If somebody wants to give me a script, I will say, 'Thank you very much, I appreciate that. I'll look at that.' . . . But at the end of the day, I have to decide what to say, what language to use, what information to include."
It is precisely because Shea is so unpackaged, so unpredictable, so passionate, that he has gained credibility with many in the spin-wary press.
"Jamie doesn't think in sound bites or even 90-second answers," says Doug Hamilton, who's been reporting from NATO headquarters for Reuters. "He violates every rule they teach in those $1,000-a-day corporate PR courses. But what saves him is that he has a way of putting flesh and bones on this story and giving it meaning."
Now, with the war close to ending, Shea has begun to think of a life outside NATO. Tucked in a drawer are the names of headhunters who have telephoned over the past two months with lucrative private-sector opportunities. Don't be surprised, he told a friend recently, if he takes one of them up before the tan begins to fade.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company