The Tbilisi Post
If you were running the largest newspaper in the capital city of the world's sole superpower, which foreign-policy issues would you select as your top priorities? The war in Iraq? Terrorism? Nuclear terrorism, something that could change the American way of life forever? Energy policy, which is already severely affecting many Americans' lives? If you don't like these, what about China, India, Iran, North Korea, the Middle East peace process or climate change?
The Washington Post's answer to this question may surprise you: it's Georgia (the one ruled from Tbilisi, not Atlanta). In barely more than five months since the beginning of January, Lexis-Nexis shows that the Post's editorial pages have carried at least nineteen separate contributions focused on Georgia and its relations with Russia-almost one per week-if one combines editorials (seven) and opinion pieces (twelve). The vast majority of these (but not all) have the same thesis: that Georgia, under grave threat from Russia, must be rescued by the United States, usually through accelerated membership in NATO and American pressure on weak-kneed Europeans.
In fairness, one editorial and one opinion article are critical of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's heavy-handed treatment of Georgian opposition parties and two pieces-by the excellent Post columnist Jim Hoagland-are quite balanced analytical assessments. Strikingly, however, ten of the twelve opinion pieces are by the Post's own staff and columnists; only two are from outsiders and both of them (Bruce Jackson and Ron Asmus) are friendly to the editorial page's perspectives.
Is Georgia's NATO membership really such a priority for American security in the twenty-first century? I certainly do not support Russian policy toward Georgia, or Georgian policy toward Russia, for that matter, but what bearing does it have on the central strategic interests of the United States? NATO already dominates the European continent and Georgia would add no meaningful military capabilities. Georgia does host a section of an important pipeline, but a military or even political defense of the pipeline depends far more on the willingness of European governments to confront Russia than it does on Georgia's participation in NATO. And living next to Russia, rather than thousands of miles away, most Europeans are understandably reluctant to start a fight that could threaten their essential interests to ensure that Georgia rather than Russia has the predominant influence over the remote and fairly small regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I suspect that most Americans would feel the same way-after asking where they are on the map.
Yet these views are only very rarely reflected in the Post. Even rarer is balanced assessment of the Georgian-Russian relationship or the dispute over Abkhazia, which is far more complicated than one might think from reading the paper's editorials.
It is already the conventional wisdom that the United States charged into Iraq, and mismanaged the aftermath of the invasion, in part because of a lack of alternative perspectives inside the Bush administration. Despite this powerful object lesson, the Washington Post seems to have constructed an editorial echo-chamber in which its staff, columnists and others sympathetic to their views revel in their collective self-delusion. Fortunately, the Post's editorial decision making has only limited impact on those living outside that particular bubble. But the consequences of poor information and poor decisions for United States foreign policy are considerably more profound.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center and a former State Department political appointee in the Bush administration.
For those interested in the search methodology, this was a search for "Georgia and Russia" in the paper's editorial section from January 1, 2008 to June 5, 2008.