At first glance, the U.S. military's release of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's outtakes seems a brilliant bit of public relations. On reflection, though, it looks more like a golden opportunity that, while not quite bungled, could have been grabbed far more deftly.
Last week, Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida's operations in Iraq, released a slick videotape showing himself firing an automatic machine gun, denouncing President Bush, and predicting victory over all his enemies.
The outtakes—which Special Operations forces captured during a raid of a safe house outside Baghdad—reveal a much less imposing figure. Zarqawi is seen fumbling with the machine gun, which jams. Someone off-camera is heard to say, "Go help the sheikh." An aide comes over and fixes it. After the shooting, another aide grabs the gun by its hot barrel, burning his hand. Zarqawi, who's clearly put on a few pounds since last seen, walks away from the camera, exposing, beneath his black guerrilla outfit, a pair of New Balance running shoes.
In short, these guys look like Keystone terrorists, hapless amateurs—precisely the image we should have long been purveying. Every time senior U.S. officials intone the name "Zarqawi"—every time they describe him as the No. 1 foe or credit him with the foulest anti-American deeds—his stock soars higher on the jihadist street. To make him look awkward, unmanly, unschooled in the art of firearms, a consumer of expensive Western goods, is to help discredit him in the eyes of those he's most keen to impress—and possibly demystify him in the eyes of Shiite Muslims, his natural foes, who may otherwise be too fearful to fight him.
But here's the problem: The outtakes were released, and publicly chuckled over, by the U.S. military—which their intended audience regards as the region's least trustworthy source of information. Couldn't an agent have slipped a copy of the outtakes to local papers and TV stations? Better yet, couldn't the tapes' discovery have been credited to an Iraqi army unit—instead of a U.S.-British team? And why wasn't Karen Hughes all over this story? Aren't the Zarqawi outtakes the stuff of which "public diplomacy" officials' dreams are made?
Instead of letting Al Jazeera or—how's this?—the new Iraqi prime minister show the outtakes to the world, we gave the task to Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. As the tape played at an official news conference, Lynch snarkily narrated: "We have a warrior leader, Zarqawi, who doesn't understand how to operate his weapon system. … His close associates do things like grab the hot barrel of the machine gun and burn themselves. Makes you wonder."
One thing an Iraqi Muslim might wonder while watching this infidel officer poke fun at the footage: If Zarqawi is such a joke, why is the all-powerful American military having such a hard time finding him?
As it happens, an elite team of U.S. and British special-operations forces appears to be very close to doing so. According to a story by Sean Naylor in Army Times, this team of forces, called Task Force 145, is dedicated exclusively to killing Zarqawi. Its troops have had him in their cross hairs once. They were the ones who captured the outtakes during a raid on an al-Qaida safe house in the small town of Yusufiyah, 20 miles southwest of Baghdad—during which they also killed five jihadists, captured five others, and came within a couple of blocks of nabbing Zarqawi himself.
This raises a still more puzzling question: If special ops are about to get the guy, why is the U.S. military choosing now as the time to diminish him? Shouldn't we be building up the image of his power and importance—all the better to magnify the blow of his impending downfall? The release of the outtakes allows jihadists a way to evade demoralization. "Ah well, Abu Musab was getting fat and lazy anyway," they could say. "He was becoming a joke. The Americans killing him is no big accomplishment."