Diversionary Strategies, Iran, and the Putin Election Campaign

Russian presidential candidate Vladimir Putin has made attacking the U.S. a major part of his election strategy. Is he engaging in a diversionary campaign?

Diversionary war (and diversionary actions short of war) has been the subject of a great deal of research by political scientists and popular commentary by news outlets, pundits, and even Hollywood.  Simply put, the diversionary hypothesis states that political leaders who face domestic political or economic difficulties will often invent or exaggerate foreign threats.  This may take the form of bellicose rhetoric, displays of force, or full-scale military action.  Diversion may provide a political boost for leaders either by distracting public attention from problems at home or by unifying the public (behind the government) against this alleged adversary abroad. 

There remains considerable debate in the academic literature about the prevalence of diversionary strategies and the precise conditions that might lead to their use.  A major challenge to empirically identifying cases of diversion is that political leaders have strong incentives to avoid ever admitting to the use of force for political purposes.  But alleged instances of diversion include Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s decision to invade Grenada shortly after 241 marines were killed in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, and U.S. President Bill Clinton’s bombing campaigns against Iraq and Serbia in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the resulting impeachment trial (1998-99).  Even Hollywood films have featured the diversionary hypothesis.  The film Wag the Dog (1997) is commonly regarded as a hilarious satire of American presidents’ efforts to manipulate the public in the media age, and many commentators drew uncomfortable parallels between the plot of the film and the actions of President Clinton. 

Two recent news items suggest that while diversion may be difficult to prove empirically, it is alive and well in world politics.  With presidential elections approaching in Russia and anti-government protests growing more strident, presidential candidate (and current prime minister) Vladimir Putin has begun to consistently attack the U.S. for allegedly meddling in its internal affairs and seeking to weaken and “subdue Russia.”  A CBS news analysis points out that “Putin’s anti-Americanism may have roots in his 16-year KGB career, but many believe that it is really driven by political expediency rather than ideology…Facing growing public frustration over pervasive official corruption and rising social inequality, Putin appears to be trying to redirect public anger at foreign forces.” 

And in Iran, where blaming foreign enemies for domestic problems is common (and often appears convincing given a history that includes the U.S.-British overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and more recently aggressive covert operations to halt Iran’s nuclear program), Iran’s leaders raised the specter of its foreign enemies to increase voter turnout in yesterday’s parliamentary elections.  In reporting on the elections, the New York Times highlighted the “recent campaign by Iranian high officials and clerics that declared voting a national and religious duty at a time of stress and danger…Mohammad Ali Shabani, a political analyst in Tehran [concluded]: ‘They portrayed a high turnout as a way to show unity and resistance in the face of sanctions.'”

What do you think?  Do diversionary strategies work or does the public typically see through such efforts to distract them from domestic problems? If such strategies do work at times, under what circumstances are they likely to be more or less successful?  How might actions taken for domestic political reasons have unintended effects on international relations?

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