Thursday, September 19, 2013

McCain's Op-Ed in Pravda -- The Other Side of the same Coin

After Putin’s bashing op-ed in the New York Times last week, Senator McCain was so distressed, he decided he absolutely had to respond. I missed it somehow, but apparently, he threatened to publish his response in Pravda (because, just in case you didn’t know, Pravda is a widely-read and highly-regarded newspaper in Russia, as the New York Times is in the US. Or so he thinks..?).

I was amused by his suggestion, taking it as mere demagoguery… but clearly, he wasn’t kidding. Neither was Pravda’s editor, who took him up to the challenge and offered to publish his response.

It came out earlier today, both in Russian and in English (since, you know, he’s also targeting the international audience) and makes for a fun read. It really feels like watching an international boxing match (just substitute Rocky and Drago with McCain and Putin… though I am aware that this analogy can’t go far). And in terms of public diplomacy, it is yet another disaster.

Image from: Foreign Policy

Why doesn’t it work? Well, first and foremost, he just proves Putin right. McCain’s tone, his entire approach and argument are fundamentally based on American exceptionalism: he, and the country he represents, knows better what is right and what is wrong for the Russian people. He knows better than the Russians themselves what kind of government they deserve (or not). He’s the one to hold the truth – in form of the American Declaration of Independence, which he cites in the very beginning [note: for some reason, this direct reference is absent in the English version of the piece] – and he wants to make sure that the Russians accept it as well. Because they are oppressed by their own government.

Yes, there is a lot of anti-Putinism in Russia. LOTS OF PEOPLE DO NOT LIKE HIM AND WANT HIM OUT. And for a good reason. Yet, they are not the majority. They are not “everyone”. And they represent only a segment of the population.

Furthermore, even if they despise the current regime that is in Kremlin, that does not necessarily mean that they agree with McCain, want to be associated with him, or share a similar vision for Russia (remember, a lot of the anti-Kremlin oppositioners are very nationalist… so in case they ever do get hold of power, I doubt their relations with the US will be all about roses and butterflies… which is what McCain is interested in, if not indirect control).

Image from: The Blogmocracy

So, instead of being more sensitive with his approach, McCain is simply talking down to the Russian public, further discrediting whatever domestic opposition there is to Kremlin (because they are now suddenly in the same camp with McCain) and justifying the claims by the Putin clan that they are all “foreign” or “foreign-supported agents”. He is also somewhat discrediting his own line by suggesting that the “great” and “brave” Russian people he claims to have so much faith in should be taking cues from someone else; someone they don’t even see as a friend anymore (no matter where they stand on certain domestic issues).

More importantly, though, I’m still looking for the “point” of his op-ed. As ridiculous as Putin’s one was last week, he was at least trying to make an argument on a matter of international concern and was making an (failed) attempt at influencing the American discourse on foreign policy. McCain’s objective, however, seems to be very different. Instead of making a well-supported counter-argument to Putin – which, by the way, would be very welcome internationally – he’s just arguing ad hominem, trying to shift the core of the issue to something that should, reason would suggest, be irrelevant at this point. Instead of focusing on foreign policy (where he belongs at this point in time), he’s focusing directly on domestic issues which, yet again, play into the narrative put forth by Putin & Co. about foreign interference and meddling.

Image from: Russian Victories

McCain didn’t provide any new information. No new insights. No actual argument…. So: what was the initial issue about? Whatever happened to the poor Syrians dying daily, in their thousands…

Just as in the case of Putin’s op-ed, McCain’s piece did the exact opposite of “public diplomacy”. Not only did he violate the Russians’ dignity, but he also made sure that the people he hates so ‘loudly’, have ever more arguments at home and abroad, to oppose him, his stance, and those who might agree with him. Meanwhile, those supporting Putin will now become more outspoken and vocal, pushing the entire debate at home to the right.

Even if he might be highlighting issues of grave concern about what’s going on inside Russia, it is not the right time, the right context, or even the right means to go about it. If he scored any points, it was with the far right in the US, whose interest is limited to seeing their guys win on international boxing rinks.

Finally... Pravda? Really? I don’t think it will be an overstatement to suggest that McCain has disrespected the Russian people just by suggesting that it’s a mainstream and/or credible and/or trusted source of information. Clearly, not only has he not yet woken up from the Cold War, but he didn’t understand what was going on during it either.

In short: the two op-eds are just two opposite sides of the same coin. Bashing. Tactless. And - really - pointless (that is, they don't have any points of essence, beyond scoring brownie points with their respective support camps). And I guess it goes without saying that both of their authors are very, very bad at public diplomacy.


UPDATE: 9.20.2013: Just came across a wonderful piece on Salon, about Pravda and McCain's embarrassment. "Confused senator attempts to publish column in Communist newspaper from distant past". Highly recommended reading.

1 comment:

  1. A very good piece. You are absolutely right. McCain's article has backfired. And one of the most popular jokes these days in Russia is the following:

    "Oil reserves have been found in Antarctica.

    - Down with totalitarian, bloody regime of penguins!!!"