Voice

The thing about foreign policy advocacy in a Web 2.0 world....

Ben Smith's story in Politico today focuses on the emergence of a more critical stance on Israel from Media Matters and the Center for American Progress.  Or, as neoconservatve Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin interprets it, Smith  "blows the cover off the anti-Israel left and the Democrats’ favorite think tank, the Center for American Progress, which harbors many of its shrillest voices."

What's interesting about Smith's story is his evidence for this tonal shift at CAP and Media Matters -- namely, tweets and blog posts. 

The daily battle is waged in Media Matters’ emails, on CAP’s blogs, Middle East Progress and ThinkProgress and most of all on Twitter, where a Media Mattters official, MJ Rosenberg, regularly heaps vitriol on those who disagree as “Iraq war neocon liar” (the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg) or having “dual loyalties” to the U.S. and Israel (the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin). And while the Center for American Progress tends to walk a more careful line, warm words for Israel can be hard to find on its blogs....

CAP officials have told angry allies that the bloggers don’t speak for the organization, and senior fellow Brian Katulis – whose work is more standard Clinton-Democrat fare – stressed that in an email.

“I think there are different voices on the Think Progress blog and some individual analysts - and some of that work, especially the blog, is I think aimed at reporting on and reflecting one aspect of the diversity of the views among the broad progressive community,” he said. “But what one blogger or analyst may write isn’t necessarily indicative of what our policy recommendations are for the administration or Congress when I’m doing meetings with our friends in government.”

The director of CAP’s national security program, Ken Gude, also drew a distinction between the blog, which is CAP’s loudest megaphone, and its less confrontational policy work.

“There’s a distinction here that we have between the policy work that we do and the blogging work that we do,” he said. Middle East Progress “is clearly a progressive blog and it does respond to arguments that are made most forcefully by conservatives and it responds in that way.”....

But the fact remains that the Center’s most audible voices on the Middle East aren’t the former Clinton staffers who populate much of the organization, and they come from different foreign policy traditions. Duss, a confrontational presence on Twitter but typically a more careful blogger, places himself in what’s sometimes called the “realist” stream of American foreign policy (emphasis added). 

So, to sum up Smith's observations, what's driving this story is that when it comes to Israel, some of CAP and Media Matters analysts are really harsh on Twitter and pretty harsh on the blogs -- but the more substantive, traditional  policy work doesn't look like that at all, so it's being overblown. 

Rubin is having none of that: 

[T]he scandal here is that CAP houses and provides a blog for such sentiments....

CAP is promoting this and is responsible for the venomous output on its blogs.

The excuse that these voices don’t represent CAP’s views and aren’t attributable to CAP is ludicrous....

Imagine if the bloggers were writing about the inferiority of a racial group. They’d be gone in a nanosecond. In fact, those who fancy themselves as respectable think tankers and loyal Democrats are enablers of the scourge of anti-Semitic filth that flows through the hard left. CAP has a choice: Clean out the sewer or be prepared to take the approbation that goes with the association with Israel haters and those who peddle in anti-Semitic tripe.

I don't agree with Rubin's characterizations of the content -- the material in question is not anti-Semitic (though it's problematic and borderline offensive) and CAP ain't "hard left."  That said, she raises an interesting and valid point about what, exactly, is the output of a think tank.  Is it the more traditional policy analysis?  The blogs?  The individual Twitter feeds of its denizens?  In a Web 2.0 world, I have to wonder if the latter matters at least as much as the former (of course, the significance of tweets, etc., would have to apply to Rubin as well.  Her own ombudsman, for example, blasted her for re-tweeing a link to "reprehensible" blog post containing "incendiary rhetoric"). 

There's a lot to consider here -- how a think tank brands itself, whether policy analysts can freely express themselves without being associated with their day job, and exactly how policy analysis is crafted.  If, for example, someone develops a policy position in a path-dependent manner from instant tweet to somewhat-less-instant blog post to a memo/testimony that reifies those original statements, then Web 2.0 really matters.  If, however, time leads one to modify or recalibrate the initial response -- as the statement of Duss suggests -- then Web 2.0 still matters, but in a different way.  It matters only insomuch as the foreign policy community thinks that tweets and blog posts capture more attention and bandwidth than more conventional forms of policy analysis.

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Do authoritarian elections matter in Russia? Probably not as much as you think.

A few months ago I blogged about how the Putin-Medvedev two-step caused some grumbling among Russian elites.  Russian parliamentary elections were held over the weekend, and as it turns out there was some grumbling among the public as well

Russians voting in parliamentary elections apparently turned against the ruling United Russia party in large numbers Sunday, exit polls and early results suggested, to the great benefit of the Communist Party.

In what only months ago would have been a nearly unimaginable scenario, the party dominated by Vladimir Putin was predicted to get less than 50 percent of the vote, while polling organizations put the Communists at about 20 percent, nearly double their count in the last election.

Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.

But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.

Well.... that's the odd thing about how this plays out in Russia.  On the one hand, elections like these do matter, because they dent the veneer of an effective authoritarian being in control.  Despite rigging the game, it appears that Putin and his loyalists couldn't secure the desired result.  Any time an authoritarian aparatus demonstrates fallibility is not a good day for the authoritarian apparatus. 

On the other hand.... Putin and his cronies have two to three serious advantages going into the presidential elections.  First, they can use this election as a wake-up call.  By turning up the public spending taps (which high oil prices will allow them to do) they can probably buy some more loyalty.  Second, they can be more ruthless in rigging the electoral game to ensure Putin's victory.  In trading off the international legitimacy of elections vs. winning, I suspect Putin will opt for winning. 

Third, and most important, Russia is not like the Middle East, in which a grass-roots organization has been waiting in the wings to challenge the corrupt authoritarian state.  I suspect that what will save Putin is the existing alternatives to Putin -- namely, the communists and nationalists.  Russians might not like the status quo, but it's not like the opposition has covered itself in glory either.  The Liberal Democrats have done no real governing, and the Communists have done way too much governing in its past.  These are not really desirable alternatives. 

Unless a genuine grass-roots democracy movement sprouts up in the Russian tundra, I suspect Putin and his allies will muddle through the presidential elections.  What's more interesting is whether this event triggers some longer-term planning on the part of Putin or his opposition. 

What do you think?