I’m trying to imagine a world in which the December 8, 1941 opinion page of The New York Times featured an 800-word guest editorial from General Tojo — “Why we had to bomb Pearl Harbor.” Or, for that matter, a world in which Winston Churchill would have seen fit to pen a firm, yet provocative op-ed for Der Stürmer following Hitler’s annexation of Austria — “National Socialism: an alternative perspective,” perhaps.
Yet these days we would expect nothing less. The 21st century editorial page has become as much a front of international conflict as any battlefield, and a forum of global diplomacy as distinguished as any hoary UN committee. Today it’s hardly uncommon for a head of state, cabinet minister, legislator, or military leader to attempt to drum up support or opposition for this-or-that war, bombing raid, or miscellaneous overseas excursion by churning out a snippy little essay on the matter, then submitting it to some high-profile publication deemed worthy to run it — at home or abroad.
The sheer gimmick factor of such editorials is usually enough to produce a flurry of meta-headlines, as the media excitedly covers its own bold break with tradition. A politician? Writing a column? But… he’s not a writer! How delightfully unorthodox!
But do the things actually achieve their intended ends? That is, are they an effective means of exploiting the bully pulpit of mass media in order to reshape popular opinion through the sheer power of the written word?
Well, the last two weeks have provided three high-profile case studies. And they’re not terribly encouraging.
On September 11, 2013, the 12th anniversary of 9-11, Russian President Vladimir Putin got an essay published in The New York Times under the headline “A Plea for Caution From Russia.” There’s some dispute — as there always is with these sorts of things — about just how much of the article Putin wrote himself, but there’s little question the column was at least an accurate summary of the Russian leader’s current views on the middle east. In cold, condescending, and occasionally preachy language, Putin made the case against President Obama’s then-planned military strikes against the Assad government in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons, warning that such attacks would “result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.”
His arguments in this regard — the anti-Assad opposition has been infiltrated by Qaeda, American involvement could sour nuclear negotiations with Iran, Syria is basically just another Afghanistan/Iraq/Libya waiting to happen — were not particularly novel, and have indeed been cited repeatedly by all manner of war critics within the US, on both the right and left. Far more provocative and controversial was Putin’s bold-faced assertion that when it came to poison gas, there was “every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces” a claim for which he provided zero corroborating evidence, and in any case, later undermined a few paragraphs later when he demanded “the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction.” Somebody stop this madman before he doesn’t kill again!
The Putinorial was widely fact-checked, rebutted, denounced, and parodied in the aftermath of its publication, but nothing neutered its potential impact swifter than the news cycle itself. It ran, after all, the day after President Obama had already told the world that he was holding off on asking Congress for authorization for striking Syria in the wake of that country’s hinting that it’d be willing to go for Secretary Kerry’s infamous, ad-libbed offer to exchange peace for disarmament. Two days later, Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, formally declared that the deal was a go, and a week after that, the Syrians released an inventory of their chemical weapon stockpiles to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in preparation for their destruction. Sometime this week, a resolution by the UN Security Council is expected to officially begin the disarmament process.
In short, far from dramatically altering the course of the Syrian debate, Putin’s column basically made a fairly blasé case against war at a time when the White House was already heading in that direction. His opinion wasn’t so much “ahead of its time” as exactly of its time, which, needless to say, isn’t a terribly impressive achievement.
A week or so after Putin, the new president of Iran, the reform-minded Hassan Rouhani, got an editorial of his own published in another one of America’s top journals of opinion, The Washington Post. Coming so soon after the massive media circus that greeted the Russian president’s column, it was perhaps inevitable that the Rouhani piece would be overshadowed, but even had it come at a more timely moment, it would be hard to argue it deserved anything better. In contrast to Putin’s piece, which although stiff, self-righteous, and more than a tad dishonest, was at least clear and concise, President Rouhani’s essay — “Why Iran seeks constructive engagement” — would almost certainly have not made its way into a major US editorial page had it been written by a lesser mortal.
A rambling, meandering attempt at high thinking about the art of foreign policy, Rouhani’s editorial reads as the sort of thing a first-year international relations major might write, complete with countless stale truisms (“We must pay attention to the complexities of the issues at hand to solve them”), buzzword-filled non-ideas “A key aspect of my commitment to constructive interaction entails a sincere effort to engage with neighbors and other nations to identify and secure win-win solutions”), and cloying platitudes disguised as profound insight (“Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better”).
Buried within all this mush were a few passion mentions of things Americans might actually want to hear the leader of Iran talk about, but here as well, nothing remotely interesting was said. We’re committed to “our peaceful nuclear energy program,” he said, because it embodies “our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.” And apparently he’s full of “readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition,” if anyone cares to ask. Despite the article’s headline, there was no real talk of direct nation-to-nation reengagement with the United States, which perhaps makes Rouhani’s snub of Obama at the UN delegate lounge today all the less surprising.
Lastly, sometime between the publication of the Putin editorial and the Rouhani one, Senator John McCain decided he wanted to get a piece of his own published in the Russian press. Entitled “Russians deserve better than Putin,” his editorial ran September 19 on Pravda.ru, a moderately successful English-language publication that claims to be the “spiritual successor” to the famed Communist rag of yesteryear (although that claim unto itself is apparently controversial in Russian media circles).
McCain’s column was not bad, I guess, but considering the publication, it certainly comes off as a little tone-deaf. Though Pravda.ru is not explicitly state-run, it’s still an exceedingly pro-Putin publication, with a readership that seems to consist mostly of Putin apologists, of whom there are many. (I particularly enjoyed this line from the editor justifying his decision to even run the McCain piece: “Russian media today are no less open to debate than any Western publications are — and this is the merit of the President of Russia”).
Many Russians like Putin because he embodies a certain ideal of authoritarian stability that their political culture has long venerated, as well as a powerful presence on the international stage and an architect of economic growth. Any useful critique of the man before a defensive audience would thus have to engage with such preconceptions, but McCain’s column doesn’t really do that, and instead simply trots out standard American human rights critiques of Putin’s dictatorial journalist-killing and so on. If you’re a Russian already inclined to regard Americans as preachy, supercilious know-it-alls who boss around the world without a shred of humility over problems at home, chances are patronizing stars-and-stripes boilerplate like “I believe the Russian people, no less than Americans, are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or ” I believe in your capacity for self-government and your desire for justice and opportunity,” won’t change a lot of minds.
No matter from what country they hail, politicians are ultimately just that — politicians, so we shouldn’t be terribly surprised when their skill with the written word is somewhat below the standard of your typical columnist, essayist, or pundit. The politician-editorial, after all, is really more of a journalistic marketing novelty than anything else; an easy way to lure eyeballs to a famous name, and maybe whip up some news-about-the-news free advertising in the process.
It’s a tradition whose loss few would morn.