Op-ed diplomacy: politicians fight it out in rivals’ newspapers

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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Politicians are forever pitching opinion pieces to newspaper editors, desperate to see their wisdom in print. Usually, they’re dead boring. But not so two recent examples in the US press.

First it was Vladimir Putin. In an op-ed published by the New York Times, the Russian president sought to “speak directly to the American people and their political leaders” on the proposed strike on Syria. In the article – which came via a PR agency – appealed to international law, and warned of the “extremely dangerous” idea of American exceptionalism.

A week later, the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, made his own bylined appeal to the American people. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, pledging good faith over Syria and Tehran’s nuclear programme, and calling for “constructive engagement” with the US.

The Boston Globe was intrigued by the emergence of “op-ed diplomacy”.

In an editorial, it wondered: “In the age of WikiLeaks, is back-channel communication dead? Are the leaders of controversial governments simply going to pitch to the American public directly, via newspaper columns?”

Not everyone would welcome the trend. “Critics of these efforts are wary of giving foreign dictators an audience; imagine if Mao Zedong had written for, say, the Houston Chronicle, trying to put a positive spin on his rule (“Let 1,000 flowers bloom, y’all”).”

And yet, “many American readers will find it useful to hear at length from foreign leaders in their own words”.

Inspired by Putin’s effort, meanwhile, the US senator and former presidential candidate John McCain fired back, placing an opinion piece in the famous Russian paper Pravda.

He thundered:

President Putin and his associates … don’t respect your dignity or accept your authority over them. They punish dissent and imprison opponents. They rig your elections. They control your media. They harass, threaten, and banish organisations that defend your right to self-governance …

President Putin … doesn’t believe that human nature at liberty can rise above its weaknesses and build just, peaceful, prosperous societies. Or, at least, he doesn’t believe Russians can. So he rules by using those weaknesses, by corruption, repression and violence. He rules for himself, not you.

I do believe in you. I believe in your capacity for self-government and your desire for justice and opportunity.

The only problem was that McCain’s rejoinder wasn’t published, as he apparently thought he was, in the famous state-run Russian paper Pravda at all.

It no longer exists in the form it once did, and Pravda.ru, which published his piece, is a largely comical, tabloid-style news site, characterised by angry jingoism and conspiracy theories.

McCain’s piece keeps company with other headlines such as this: “Extraterrestrial Spaceships Land and Crash on Earth Regularly”.

More by Toby Manhire

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