A group of conservatives based in Northern Virginia says public support for the U.S. presence in the Middle East is flagging mostly because President Bush has failed to articulate why troops were sent there.
To explain why the United States must liberate Kuwait from Iraq's occupation, the Coalition for America at Risk says it has raised nearly $1 million, set up a nationwide speaker's bureau, bought full-page ads in leading newspapers, run television commercials and set up two telephone information hot lines.
Sam H. Zakhem, the former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain who is co-chairman of the group, said a divisive congressional debate over the U.S. role could cripple the effort and damage troop morale. He said the hot lines have been flooded with 2,600 calls a day from Americans concerned about the issue.
"The White House is right on target" with its tough stance against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Zakhem said, but "whoever is handling the president's explanation to the American people has failed."
Zakhem said Americans should support the buildup of 400,000 American troops in the Persian Gulf because Kuwait "has been a good friend and American values call for fighting for one's friends," because of vital U.S. interests in the region, and because if Saddam is left unchecked, "everybody will be at harm's reach."
America at Risk was organized in an attempt to counter other conservatives, led by columnist Patrick Buchanan, who have questioned Bush's policies, said the group's spokesman, Craig Shirley. His public relations firm, Keene, Shirley & Associates in Alexandria, serves as headquarters for the coalition.
The language of the coalition's materials pulls no punches. "The Kuwaiti morgues are filled to overflowing and the Iraqis have piled the bodies of murdered Kuwaitis in heaps, as at Auschwitz," reads one coalition leaflet. "Countless Kuwaiti women have been raped and brutalized by grinning Iraqi troops in uniform."
The leaflet goes on to say that "some in America are trying to undermine the overwhelming support for President Bush and his policy of removing Saddam Hussein from Kuwait." It then ask citizens to call the hot lines and leave their names. They are then mailed a "Free Kuwait" bumper sticker and a packet of form letters to send to key members of Congress, particularly those who are questioning Bush's policies.
Several liberal groups, including one headed by former attorney general Ramsey Clark, are trying to mobilize public opinion against Bush's policies. Clark's New York-based group, the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, is organizing a Jan. 19 march in Washington to demand withdrawal of U.S. troops in the Middle East.
The fight to win public opinion on the U.S. policy in the Middle East is considered critical. Bush said last week that "holding public opinion forever in any country is very difficult to do," when asked why the United States could not simply wait out Saddam.
Martin Binkin, a military analyst at the Brookings Insititution, said the "worry is that Bush might make a decision on combat action earlier because of a fear of a loss of public opinion."
The latest public opinion polls show weakened support for the way Bush has handled the crisis. In September, 78 percent approved. By mid-November, the number slipped to 59 percent, according to Washington Post-ABC polls.
Both Zakhem and Shirley said that their group, which they said includes Richard Viguerie, conservative direct-mail fund-raiser; David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; and Scott Stanley Jr., editor in chief of the conservative wire service American Press International, is financed entirely by private citizens.
Zakhem said the group plans to step up its effort if Congress begins debating the issue. The coalition's 30-second television ads feature an unidentified woman, described as a recently escaped hostage, who outlines the plight of those held in Iraq and Kuwait, recounting how courageous Kuwaitis are protecting Americans hiding there. Another ad features an American soldier writing home, outlining the reasons he believes the United States should stand tough against Saddam.
Zakhem said 50 conservatives in the coalition's network are giving speeches around the country to high schools, civic groups and any other forum they can find from Alaska to New York. In Washington, Zakhem has addressed a group of Georgetown University students and is scheduled to address the Institute for Geopolitical Studies today at the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton Hotel.