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How did a blatant falsehood -- that Russia's attack on Georgia was "unprovoked" -- become unchallenged orthodoxy in the U.S.?

Published October 16, 2008 8:19PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Here's an exchange from the chat held by The Washington Post's Dana Priest today (emphasis in original):

Evanston, Ill.: Hey Dana, why does McCain keep saying that Russia committed unprovoked aggression against Georgia? Nobody outside of America believes that. Why won't anyone call him out on that?

Dana Priest: The person who would need to do that is Obama and he doesn't do that -- or a lesser version of that -- because, I suspect, he does not want to look weak vis a vis a resurgent Russia.

At first glance, this seems like a fairly ordinary point, but while the general pattern is far from new, it is still quite remarkable.  One of the two major presidential candidates is repeatedly lying to the American public about one of the most significant geopolitical events of the year.  The other candidate has adopted the lie because doing so is more politically expedient than refuting it.  

As a result, the vast bulk of the American citizenry has a completely false understanding of a war that took place this year between our "stalwart ally" and our New/Old Scary Enemy (namely, that the New Scary Enemy launched an unprovoked attack on our sweet and innocent democratic ally).  That lie is then used to depict the New Enemy as a Grave Threat and to justify proposed NATO membership for the victimized ally, an extremely dangerous policy which all four major candidates, with varying degrees of qualification, fundamentally endorse (thus further eliminating any discussion, debate or dissent over it).

Since all of the major candidates accept the deceitful premise about what happened -- that Russia's "aggression" against Georgia was "unprovoked" -- nobody refutes it, and Americans thus assume it is true.  And:  Americans are alone in this world in being lied to about what happened.  Virtually the entire rest of the world -- at least the rest of the world that is affected in some way by Russia and Georgia -- has access to the truth.  But here, not only is the lie not debunked, it's not even discussed or debated (with some rare exceptions).  The propaganda is just asserted to be true by the political establishment and thus accepted by most of the citizenry, and then becomes the unchallenged foundation of all sorts of dangerous, militaristic policy orthodoxies that nobody is free to dispute (upon pain of being ejected from the political mainstream).

As I said, this propagandizing model obviously isn't a new dynamic, but it's still remarkable when it finds such clear and blatant expression, on an issue of such obvious significance.  The relative ease of inculcating most of the American population with such a blatant falsehood -- even as most of the rest of the world is exposed to the truth -- is also quite striking.


UPDATE:  There are a couple of points to address arising from the discussion in comments:

(1) I'm not making an argument here about what Obama should or shouldn't do.  It's almost certainly the case that Obama backed off his original, far superior even-handed statement and reverted to a one-sided defense of Georgia that tracked McCain's for exactly the reason Priest said:  namely, a calculation that he'd be politically harmed if McCain could depict him as "soft on Russia."  

One can debate whether that political calculation is correct, and one can also debate whether, even if the calculation were correct, Obama ought to be nonetheless willing to risk political harm -- perhaps even fatal political harm -- in order to engage in what is (at this point) a mostly abstract dispute over the genesis of the Russia-Georgia conflict.  That's a legitimate debate to have, but I'm not addressing any of that with what I wrote here.  Instead, my point is to document and marvel at the ease with which patent, serious falsehoods are not only freely voiced, but become unchallenged orthodoxy in our political discussions.

(2) Several commenters have objected to the statement of Priest, unquestionably one of the nation's most superb investigative journalists, on the ground that it is the responsibility of journalists such as her to expose the falsity of McCain's claims, regardless of whether Obama is silent on those claims or has even adopted them himself.  In terms of her actions as a journalist, that's a responsibility Priest fulfills as much as any journalist in the country, but the commenters' criticism of her statement as she expressed it here is nonetheless valid. 


UPDATE II:  The war-supporting, basically neoconservative Washington Post Editorial Page just posted its endorsement of Obama for President -- one issued "without ambivalence."  It heaps praise on McCain ("There are few public figures we have respected more over the years than Sen. John McCain") but notes that "the choice is made easy in part by Mr. McCain's disappointing campaign, above all his irresponsible selection of a running mate who is not ready to be president." Along the way, the Editorial includes this bit of standard inanity about Georgia:

But Mr. Obama, as anyone who reads his books can tell, also has a sophisticated understanding of the world and America's place in it. He, too, is committed to maintaining U.S. leadership and sticking up for democratic values, as his recent defense of tiny Georgia makes clear.

Obama has assured the establishment that he is one of them and largely endorses its fundamental values.  His position on Russia-Georgia was probably an important part of that effort.  As indicated, one can question whether establishment support of that kind is necessary or desirable (and one can question the extent to which Obama will govern in accord with his campaign persona/rhetoric), but it is Obama's willingness to take positions like this which have enabled him to secure that approval.

By Glenn Greenwald

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