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How the USA Might Lose the Public Relations War against Russia

It's that time again: wartime. We find ourselves back in Orwell's Eurasia, with an Emmanuel Goldman we are supposed to despise, two-minute hates, and a torture room with rats somewhere waiting for us if we choose to go against Big Brother. Instead of placards glued to brick walls, we have memes on Facebook telling us that if we do not believe what the government says, we are pro-Putin Russian spies.

War history is told in two ways, usually: a chronology of battles for the history books and the emotional record left behind by war propaganda. The chronology of battles cannot get written until years after the fact, when we know who won the war, so we can go and orient all the blow-by-blow battle details into a coherent storyline culminating in the ending. This is why so many have said that the victors write history.

The record left by war propaganda is always trickier, partly because the way things felt in the heat of the moment, when nobody knew who was going to win, ends up being memorialized and preserved for posterity. We read Homer's Iliad and feel all the emotion of wartime as if we didn't know the Trojans are going to lose (even though of course we do). The epic ends with the funeral speeches by Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen — the mother, wife, and sister-in-law of a fallen Trojan prince. Even though the Greeks won militarily, the Trojans come out commanding so much more sympathy that Virgil, Livy, and other Roman writers would openly ally Rome's heritage to the Trojans rather than to the Greeks.

Some great leaders such as Queen Isabel of Castile, Queen Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Simon Bolívar achieved massive victories in large part due to their exceptional abilities to steer public opinion and appeal to the masses. Some of these figures become far less sympathetic over time as generations look back on what they said.

So now we find ourselves in that uncomfortable position of not knowing how things will turn out. Doomsday scenarios are like opinions (and a certain body part), as the saying goes — everyone has one. The experts in this crisis have not been operating at their best. But we really have no idea what the story of this war will be when the war is over, including who won, who got dragged in, who lost the most, and who was really the right side. If you think you know those things, you aren't skeptical enough of yourself or the sources you trust.

The propaganda war will matter a great deal. World War II was rather unusual in U.S. history, as most conflicts, such as the Mexican-American War and the military entanglements in Indochina, Latin America, and the Middle East, follow a trajectory from moral certainty to moral uncertainty:

  1. There is usually a clear-cut good guy and bad guy at the beginning, but as the war progresses, it is not that clear-cut.

  2. A large portion of the U.S. population jumps to support the side the U.S. is supporting at the beginning but then comes to back away from that view later on.

  3. The U.S. inevitably looks better at the beginning of its military adventure than it does at the end.

So if the Russia-Ukraine war follows the same pattern, we can safely predict the following:

  1. When news first broke of Russia's invasion, it was clear in our heads that Ukraine was the good guy, and Russia was the bad guy. When the war is done, and we have had a lot of time to digest all the rapid-fire information coming out, and new revelations break, it will not be that black and white. Objective observers will concede that Ukraine and her Western allies engaged in some unethical conduct before the war. They will also admit that Vladimir Putin's posture was neither blameless nor entirely senseless.

  2. A small fringe on the left and right will have opposed the U.S. position in this conflict from the beginning and will not have changed. A sizable proportion of die-hards will have taken the side of Ukraine/Biden and will have stuck with that opinion through thick and thin, regardless of whatever revelations come out. But another sizable proportion of the U.S. population will have had second thoughts. A significant number of people will have supported Biden's Ukraine position at the beginning and will find themselves doubtful or resistant to that position by the end. If past patterns hold, this group, people who changed their minds, will prevail as the group with the most enduring influence on how the war is remembered. The nuanced view is always toxic at the beginning but the most respectable one over time.

  3. At the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the United States appeared to all the world as a heroic knight in shining armor coming to the defense of a battered and innocent ally, Ukraine. After the war is over, a certain segment of the world will have decided that the United States was not heroic or innocent in this, but was engaged in ruthless geopolitics that put billions of innocent human lives at risk.

Why might we lose the moral high ground?

One of the cardinal rules in politics is "the cover-up is worse than the crime." When we fight for hearts and minds, we fight for credibility. We need our audience to trust that we are not the type of people to hide or lie about things. That way, when there is no way to know for certain what happened, our version of events is always the first to be trusted.

The Biden administration has got caught in multiple lies and hypocrisies. People around the world cannot feel safe assuming that Biden's account is automatically more reliable than anyone else's including Putin's.

First, there was the basic dishonesty in the way Biden characterized Putin and the action in Ukraine. Some might call it simple hypocrisy, but I classify it as dishonesty because it has involved direct misrepresentation of past actions by people involved.

Let's start with the current president and his role in the Iraq war. Joe Biden was a senator from Delaware at the time that George W. Bush's administration was pushing for an invasion of Iraq. In the 2008 vice presidential debates between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, Palin caught Biden fibbing about whether he voted to invade Iraq or not. Palin pointed out that he did vote for the war, while Biden pretended he voted for something other than the authorization for the military to enter Iraq by force and oust Saddam Hussein.

By 2008, the invasion of Iraq had become the major issue weighing the Republicans down, especially people like Bush and McCain; the populace had soured on post-9/11 patriotism and no longer accepted the rationale for invading Iraq without questioning it. As a senator, Biden supported the invasion, while as a vice presidential candidate, he beat around the bush. Does Biden believe that large countries are not allowed to use military force to dislodge governments that threaten their national interest?

There was no dearth of information available to a U.S. senator when Biden had to make that determination about Iraq, a country reeling from crippling U.S. sanctions and located 6,200 miles away. If he believes that nations should not do things like that, then he voted foolishly against his own ideals twenty years ago, showing a streak of cynicism, or he is misrepresenting his ideals and demonizing Russia because it's someone other than we.

Unfortunately, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was simply too huge of an event for people to ignore. Iraq did not border the United States, but was halfway around the world; this contrasts against the reality that Ukraine borders Russia and is home to a large number of Russians. The justification given by the U.S. was that Iraq was part of an axis of evil along with Iran and North Korea, none of whom seems to have been directly involved with the attacks of 9/11. Not only did the U.S. invade, but the U.S. set up a brand new government and remained in Iraq to occupy it well into Obama's presidency, with Joe Biden serving as vice president.

This brings us to the Biden administration's position on Nazis and white supremacists. For years, Biden's camp told us Trump posed an existential threat to the United States because he was supported by neo-Nazis and white nationalists.

Then came 2022. Vladimir Putin justifies his invasion of Ukraine in part by saying he needs to "de-Nazify" the Ukrainian government. Many in Biden's camp came forward swiftly to dismiss any talk of de-Nazification as propagandistic bluster and fake news.

But bloggers soon unearthed a lot of reportage, some as recently as only a year ago, about the deadly threat posed by the Nazi-affiliated, white nationalists, and fascists in Ukraine — groups that appear closely tied to the governing party in Ukraine today. For about a decade, left-wing media had been writing about the Ukrainian Nazis' disturbing influences in the government (something contrasted against the ban on Nazi parties in most of Europe), as well as the Ukrainian Nazis' anti-Semitism and general xenophobia.

Then came the controversy over "biolabs." Here, the United States lost even more credibility. Many otherwise skeptical people accepted the story from the U.S. at face value for weeks, which was that there were no U.S.-sponsored biolabs in Ukraine, and anyone who said there were was parroting lies from the Kremlin.

Unfortunately, during questioning by Marco Rubio before Congress, undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland was forced to admit there were biolabs in Ukraine that the United States was concerned about falling into the hands of the Russians. The U.S. government issued a series of disclaimers. Their official story was that the labs were left over from the Soviet era, which ended over thirty years ago, and the United States was merely doing research there, funded under the defense budget, for the innocent purpose of protecting people from dangerous pathogens. The more government officials parsed the difference between "bioweapons" and "biodefense" and "bioresearch," the more they looked like bumbling liars caught telling a fib. In a matter of days, the story changed from "evil Russia makes up a preposterous story about biolabs" to "Americans' amateurish adventures in lethal biological warfare research culminates in preposterous fibs even the sweetest grandmother could tell weren't true."

Meanwhile, impossible claims that the Ukrainian freedom fighters were bringing Putin to his knees unraveled. As almost 8% of Ukraine fled as refugees, reports surfaced of Ukraine forcing old men and teenagers with no training into suicide missions against Russian forces. It became clear that the United States could not even tell the truth about what was happening from day to day in the war, and no amount of Tik-Tok pep talks and fulsome coverage on NBC was going to change the fact that Ukraine's government was not going to win.

It was the perfect time for New York Times' humiliating article revealing that the story about Hunter Biden's laptop from 2020 was not Russian disinformation, as pro-Biden and anti-Trump people had claimed for well over a year. In fact, the pro-Trump and anti-Biden people who had published about the shocking contents of Biden's laptop were telling the truth.

Time will tell us whether the U.S. can ever recover its credibility. Perhaps the mix-ups, tangled webs, little white lies, and grand deceptions will culminate in a tragic thermonuclear war, and we won't even have functioning brain cells to assimilate all that's happened. Assuming a finale falling short of nuclear winter, we know for certain that the U.S. will be at a major disadvantage when the history books are written.

American propagandists do wonderfully when they play offense. On the defensive, caught in lies, struggling to talk themselves out of a hole they dug themselves into, American government officials often perform terribly. Perhaps this is the Puritans' legacy: having convinced themselves of the holiness of their cause, Americans' only response when caught in unholiness is to double down on their public rectitude. Such an attitude works with a certain part of the domestic populace, at least for a while. Abroad, where people's starting point is not undying worship of American ideals, the doubling down can often decimate the nation's credibility. We'll see what happens in this case.

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