Who’s winning the public relations war in Libya?

Well clearly it’s not Colonel Gaddafi, although it’s unwise to write off the old villain until he’s safely interred in a coffin with a stake driven through his heart.

But perception is all in these affairs (unless you’re being shot at of course) and the military intervention in Libya is a severe test of the PR abilities of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, UK PM David Cameron and US president Barack Obama.

Two of the three, Obama and Cameron, are desperate not be seen doing what their predecessors did. US president George Bush in invading Iraq in a rage after 9/11 and British PM Tony Blair dutifully following him.

Sarkozy’s position is rather different as his predecessor Jacques Chirac famously stayed out of Iraq, and won many friends for France in so doing (although not in the US or the government-supporting bit of the UK).

But France has always regarded North Africa as its home territory, although its colonial involvement there has been a vale of tears, most notably in the Algerian war of independence which almost led to a military coup in France fifty years ago.

But, in presentation terms at least, Sarkozy has upped his ratings on the world stage by being the first Western government to recognise the rebels in Libya, by hosting today’s multinational confab about Libya in Paris and then being the first Western leader to launch warplanes against Gaddafi forces.

Cameron is apparently deploying British forces too whilst insisting that he’s not employing Tony Blair-style ‘liberal interventionism.’

But that’s exactly what he is doing of course, the difference being that he has a legitimate and broad-based UN resolution to back him him up. Which Bush and Blair (who’s been remarkably quiet about all this) certainly didn’t.

Cameron is still vulnerable because the coalition government’s defence review has just decided to do without aircraft carrier Ark Royal and its Harrier jump jets on the grounds that they’re not needed any more.

It and they would have been rather handy off the coast of Libya.

Obama, meanwhile, seems to have played his hand well. He stayed out of things at first, leading to accusations that he was vacillating, even cowardly.

But when the Arab League, which is not as important as it sounds but at least is composed of Arabs, decided to back intervention in Libya he moved swiftly and, while saying the US is just one part of a rather ad hoc coalition, has been quick to underline US power with a speech telling Gaddafi to withdraw his forces followed up with a volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles aimed at targets in and around Tripoli.

This is the Clint Eastwood style of negotiating. Push me too far and there’ll only be two kinds of opponent left: the quick and the dead.

And, assuming that Gaddafi forces don’t somehow or other succeed in taking Benghazi, looks likely to pay off for the US.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

One comment

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    Every second anyone in the civilized world spends thinking about anything to do with Libya sends the following message: “Our energy policy is a failure.”

    That is a hell of a message for a public relations campaign.

    A New York public relations guy