The intense pressure on mainstream journalists to stick to the same narrative cripples our ability to conduct robust democratic debate. Read more at my Think Again column this week, "Of Groupthink and ‘Groupthink,’" here.
Now here’s Reed:
On Display, the Republican Party’s Empty Foreign Policy Toolbox
by Reed Richardson
In the middle of the night on September 22, 2010, a bomb planted outside the US Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, exploded. Fortunately, no one was hurt. (A second bomb that had been thrown over a security wall and into an embassy parking lot was disabled before detonating.) Months later, two men were arrested and convicted of the crime and, during their interrogation, they said that Yevgeny Borisov, a Russian major in the GRU, the country’s foreign intelligence service, planned the attack.
That you’ve likely never heard of this incident is no surprise or accident, for that matter. Foreign news bureaus being something of a luxury these days, not a single major American news organizations made mention of it in the days or months following, despite the story unfolding into such stuff of gripping, Cold War-era international intrigue. Even among Western foreign policy wonks, the attempted bombing passed by with little notice.
After nearly a year, however, the bombing finally appeared on the media’s radar. Sadly, that’s when the right-wing Washington Times ran an three-part series on the incident that—naturally—portrayed the Obama foreign policy team, which was downplaying the bombing, as weak and having ignored naked Russian aggression. The news hook to the story was the recent revelation of a CIA report that had concluded that Borisov was involved in the bombing; a subsequent National Intelligence Council report found “no consensus” on his involvement, though. This discrepancy, of course, did not stop right-wing think tanks and pundits from restarting their Cold War jingoism and making dire predictions about the impending failure of Obama’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia.
In fact, the reality of the diplomatic situation in Georgia was much more complicated than what appeared in the media. The U.S. embassy bombing in 2010 was actually but one incident in a series of broader attacks—stretching back for more than a year—that was clearly aimed at destabilizing Georgia politically and undermining its effort to keep the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (See this study for a detailed account of two-year bombing campaign.) The onset of this violence could be traced back to the Georgian-Russian military battles in August 2008, the aftermath of which was still claiming lives despite a European Union-brokered ceasefire.
Despite neo-conservatives champing at the bit for a confrontation with Russia, the Obama administration chose a different path. Rather than publicly blast Moscow’s involvement in the embassy and other bombings based on shaky evidence—likely igniting a strong pushback and further destabilizing the situation—Secretary of State Clinton quietly engaged in several diplomatic, face-to-face meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to arrive at a more comprehensive solution. And guess what? It worked.
But don’t take my word for it, here’s Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili extolling the U.S.’s diplomatic efforts to the Daily Beast in 2011:
“I know firsthand Hillary Clinton raised this several times with Lavrov,” he said. “This was not just raised for the sake of formality, she was very insistent and very tough on that one. On a public level, it was much less visible, but what we know from diplomatic considerations is that the administration was pretty tough. And you know the result is there. Since they started to do that…the bombings have stopped so far.”
Now, a year later, the political situation in that region is by no means settled, as Russian military forces continue to occupy South Ossetia and Abkhazia (and Borisov, though tried and convicted in Georgia in absentia, remains at large). But by firmly addressing the ongoing campaign of violence instead of merely seeking a narrow PR victory to trumpet, the Obama foreign policy team laid the groundwork for a more lasting peace without alienating either of the two major parties.
The point of all this? To demonstrate that this kind of quiet, grinding effort, through dialogue, cooperation, and—yes—tough negotiation may not make for macho headlines and punchy bumper stickers, but it is what reaps real foreign policy success and builds up our country’s reputation around the world. What’s more, it stands in stark contrast to the current bloodthirsty approach to all things foreign policy favored by neoconservatives, which might best be summed up by the old adage: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
This one-note foreign policy mindset was on full display yet again this week, demonstrated by the speed with which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney started swinging a “big stick” even before the smoke from the attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya had cleared. Prodded by a veritable Who’s Who of neocon advisors, Romney’s belligerent tone was eerily reminiscent of the blustering recklessness his predecessor displayed four years ago.
Back then, it’s worth recalling, GOP nominee Senator John McCain desperately tried to out-butch then-candidate Obama over, coincidentally, the military conflict between Russia and Georgia. In contrast to Obama, whose initial response to the crisis was a measured call for both sides to show “restraint,” McCain’s amped up indignation had him sounding like a rabid anti-Communist from sixty years earlier, ready to personally fly an airlift sortie into a besieged Berlin.
Moreover, who can forget that saber-rattling op-ed of his in the Wall Street Journal, resolutely proclaiming: “We Are All Georgians.” In it, McCain laid out a devastating case detailing the Russia military’s incursion into Georgia, burnishing his foreign policy credentials in comparison to the young neophyte Senator from Illinois. OK, that’s not really what happened, that’s only how he and most of the media were credulously portraying it, as the establishment press eagerly lapped up McCain’s machismo and tut-tutted Obama’s initial, “too cautious” approach.
Of course, McCain’s bravado about an innocent Georgia trying to stave off an unprovoked invasion was, it turns out, simply not true. In fact, his impassioned pleas actually provided cover for Georgia’s aggression, which we now know involved conniving to manufacture a border skirmish and then using that as an excuse to unilaterally unleash a heavy artillery barrage on civilian seats of power in South Ossetia. That Russia, incensed, then struck back hard on Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and unapologetically aided and abetted localized ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia only further proved that both parties owned some of the blame and that Obama’s deliberate, even-handed reaction turned out to be the best judgment.
This time around, though, the Republicans haven’t been able to construct that same prevailing narrative of a weak, unsteady Obama in the press. (And if I were Romney, I’d find it particularly galling that Steve Schmidt, McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, who helped orchestrate McCain’s shamelessly inaccurate bloviating over Russia, found the time to tell a reporter this behavior is “very dangerous.”) Why? Well, no doubt this is partly because Obama now has a foreign policy record, which counts as accomplishments things like taking out Osama bin Laden and a heavy, rather cold-blooded reliance upon drone strikes against alleged terrorists (which I have serious objections to, I might add). But color me skeptical that the press has really learned to look past the dangerous siren song of the neoconservative worldview when it comes to covering foreign crises.
More likely, the press has comfortably internalized the old “incompetency dodge” that after-the-fact Iraq War critics used as justification of their changes of heart. Indeed, notice that it was primarily Romney’s admittedly crass and ham-handed execution that earned most of the condemnation from the pundits and the press. Not surprisingly, we’ve already seen some Republicans belatedly rally to his side using this rhetorical backdoor—that it was only the unfortunate timing of Romney’s critique that was problematic, rather than the bilious content or lack thereof. In fact, it’s hard to say which is worse—the way he flagrantly twisted the words of the U.S. embassy staff and Obama administration or that fact that when asked, point-blank, what he would have done differently, he could offer up no answer, only more spin.
By now this intellectual emptiness should come as no great shock to anyone. After all, this modern Republican Party, dominated as it is by hardline neoconservatives, has pretty much abandoned diplomatic tools like reason, nuance, and honesty in favor of a threatening, one-carrier-group-fits-all approach. As a result, when someone like Mitt Romney encounters a complex foreign policy situation, the shape of which doesn’t neatly fit the square peg of his narrow beliefs, the only way he knows to make the world fit together is to keep on swinging that hammer harder and harder until something gives. And the high price of what, or more accurately, who gives with this kind of doomed strategy, we’re still seeing today.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I appreciate the gusto with which you and Reed dressed down Glenn Kessler for his inept fact-checking. However, please do not let other fact-checkers off the hook. Note this jaw-dropper from factcheck.org:
Biden claimed Romney “believes it’s OK to raise taxes on middle classes by $2,000.” Romney actually promises to lower middle-class taxes.
Of course, Biden never claimed that Romney has said that he will raise middle-class taxes. but there is no way that he can cut taxes for the wealthy, eliminate capital gains taxes, eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, eliminate estate taxes, increase defense spending and cut the deficit without raising middle-class taxes. Ironically, factcheck.org has made this very point in another article:
Romney’s experts predict about a 1 percent increase in growth. One of the authors of the Tax Policy Center study says that is “implausibly large” and even if it materializes it wouldn’t prevent a tax increase on middle-income taxpayers under Romney’s income tax plan.
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