Foreign Policy Blogs

Georgia, the U.S. Elections, and Propaganda

How will the Georgian conflict involve and influence the U.S. Presidential election campaign? What efforts are governments undertaking in this conflict to influence international public opinion?

This subject spans the topic headings of several categories of our “Foreign Policy Blogs” — but let's consider briefly the public information dimension.

Against the backdrop of a real military conflict, the political battle for the U.S. Presidency highlights every nuance of the candidates’ responses to international crisis. This year, this is the particular legacy of Hillary Clinton's “3 a.m.” TV ad campaign during the Democratic primaries attacking Barack Obama for being inexperienced in international crisis management. Given a real — not hypothetical — crisis, McCain and his handlers have been eager to copy a page from Hillary's playbook and depict McCain as the knowledgeable and experienced statesman whose skeptical view of Russia is borne out by Russia's behavior in Georgia.

This is superficial, opportunistic — but well within bounds as far as political campaigns go.

Of more substantive concern is the trend for presidential candidates to actually contact foreign actors in an ongoing crisis. John Edwards started this trend last December when he telephoned Musharraf to warn him against cracking down on Pakistan's democracy. Both McCain and Obama continued the trend this week in their multiple calls to Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president. The desire for the candidates to act and be seen as acting “presidential” risks verging on disregard as to possible other, international consequences. Has Saakashvili misinterpreted statements of support from U.S. officials and politicians in calculating his actions in South Ossetia? The Bush Administration was quick to applaud Georgia's “Rose Revolution,” with Bush traveling to Tbilisi in May 2005 to address a cheering crowd, but did it allow these public acts of diplomacy to be misconstrued as security guarantees?

Our Russia blogger, Vadim Nikitin, rightly notes that American cable news networks have been compliant in following the U.S. government's view of the conflict. But this was not propaganda, just the operation of the 24-hour news cycle. When all the networks have crews on the ground, you can expect more in-depth reporting. Yes, residents of South Ossetia included those with grievances against the Georgian government, but this certainly looks like a conflict that Russia was eager to have. As the NYT reported, in the weeks before the military conflict started, the Russian government was already attacking Georgian cyberspace. A special Web site appears to have been set up for foreign propaganda as well.

Russia is, after all, in a good position not just to manage the message, but the media as well.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy