Foreign policy in the TV age

April 29, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- EVERY YEAR the nation's capital finds new "truths" about foreign policy, and this last year one of them has been the idea that dramatic or emotional TV coverage of foreign crises now dictates policy. The less-than-perfect American and U.N. intervention in Somalia is often mentioned as a case in point.

I've had trouble with that idea from the start, even when U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali mentioned it to me in several interviews as a new factor in world power, one that was making his life even more miserable than it already was.

Now, wonder of wonders, some genuine truths are emerging from the question, "Is television forming foreign policy in this new age?" And they are coming out of the so-often thoughtless world of television itself!

Going almost unnoticed in the news this week was an unusual congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that examined the impact of television on U.S. foreign policy. And if we listened to some of the "star" testimony, we were led to fascinating insights.

"When a policy and its consequences have not been adequately explained, an informational vacuum will have been created that gives an even greater resonance to those who bear no real responsibility for carrying out U.S. foreign policy," Ted Koppel of ABC-TV said frankly at one point.

And that, the historian Michael Beschloss answered, gives presidents less flexibility in deciding how to respond to international crises.

Ed Turner, vice president of CNN, which is seen in 265 countries "live," added: "We at CNN do not consider the impact of our proposed coverage on policy, the U.S. or any other country . . . If we began to attempt to figure in foreign policy, the organization would wind up in a swamp of 'what ifs' and 'maybes.' "

Underlying all of the expressions of concern or impatience was one thought: that the president and the Congress, by their unwillingness or inability to articulate a clear foreign policy and sell it to the public, are trying to put the blame on television for doing their jobs.

Think only about Somalia. Television can be blamed by forces on high in the administration for showing those awful films of rail-thin Somalian children and adults dying in the dirt and filth. But that was not what caused the Bush administration to go into Somalia. Rather, officials moved to feed Somalia so that they would not have to intervene in Bosnia, believing that an "easy" intervention in Somalia would take the attention from a potential military quagmire such as Bosnia.

As a matter of fact, there was no American public outcry at all that was forcing the Bush administration into Somalia; indeed, the pictures of human beings being slaughtered in Bosnia were far worse -- and far more persistent -- than were those of Somalia.

Nor have the Clinton people been forced by television (or anything else) to take vigorous action in Bosnia. Despite the most grotesque events of modern times there, the administration goes on threatening the innocent and cajoling the guilty.

Where television does lead foreign policy is on the other side of the intervention argument. Television leads, as political analyst William Schneider points out, in making the American electorate feel more threatened by, and thus more passive about, the world. Today, far from television encouraging American intervention anywhere, not only do Americans not want to see Americans die in wars, they don't want to see anybody else die in wars either.

So, yes, television is having an impact on foreign policy, but not the kind most people perceive. Television only fills the policy and strategy vacuum that this administration is leaving unfilled. The world depends for its sanity not upon the accidental "leadership" of television but upon genuine political and military strategic analysis.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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