Lifestyle & Belief

US political consultants mucking things up abroad


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press on Jan. 21, 2013 in Jerusalem.


Lior Mizrahi

Editor's note: This is the second in GlobalPost's two-part series on US campaign consultants going global.

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Arthur Finkelstein is having a bad year.

Not only did the renowned Republican political consultant completely misread the trends in the US presidential election — he had Mitt Romney winning by 4 percent — but now one of his major clients, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has had a disappointing performance in the Jan. 22 poll.

Netanyahu will hold on to his post, but his Likud-Beiteinu Party, which gained just 31 seats, will have to form a broad coalition to lead the 120-seat Knesset.

Worst of all, for Finkelstein, Netanyahu’s followers are blaming him for the weak showing. Finkelstein, after all, is the one who pushed for Netanyahu’s Likud to join with the hard-line nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, confidently predicting they would gain at least 45 seats. But then Finkelstein’s record at forecasting results has been a bit spotty of late.

Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg is not doing much better. His candidate — Barack Obama — may have won in November, but his client in Israel, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, came in a distant third in the January ballot, much worse than expected.

Mark Mellman, who worked with Greenberg on John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential bid, emerged as the big winner. Former television host Yair Lapid, with Mellman’s help, surged to a surprising second-place finish.

Welcome to the world of Israeli politics, where American political consultants rule the roost — or, at least, they did until their rather dismal showing in January’s election.

“Forget about Bibi and Shelley, it’s really Finkelstein vs. Greenberg,” crowed Ha'aretz, Israel’s liberal daily newspaper.

Established figures like Greenberg make a very comfortable living out of traveling the world and marketing US-style politics, even where, perhaps, it does not belong.

Take Ukraine, the former Soviet republic where questions of parliamentary procedure are regularly settled with fisticuffs.

In the 2010 presidential elections, a powerful team of US political consultants replayed their 2008 campaign, putting Kiev in place of Washington.

Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, took on the task of helping to re-elect President Viktor Yushchenko.

John McCain’s adviser, Paul Manafort, was in the camp of the chief opposition leader, Viktor Yanukovych.

And last but not least, AKPD, the firm founded by Barack Obama’s political guru, David Axelrod, supplied the strategy for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was hoping for a promotion.

Ukraine’s politics are nothing if not convoluted. The 2004 elections, with the same candidates, featured dioxin poisoning, vote rigging, and a peaceful, “orange” revolution.

But, once the consultants arrived in 2010, the real battle began.

Yushchenko had the hardest fight; Ukraine’s economic crisis had made him one of the least popular men in the country. Despite Penn’s best efforts, the president lost badly.

Tymoshenko had the snappiest campaign; AKPD designed a series of billboards with one-liners: “They talk, she works.” “They promise, she works.” “They betray, she works.” No one needed to be told who “she” and “they” were.

But still, she could not triumph against Yanukovych’s handlers, who swiftly transformed him from an authoritarian Kremlin lackey to a pro-Western reformer.

He won with a comfortable margin, and promptly jailed Tymoshenko on what her supporters say are politically motivated charges. He also brought Ukraine closer to Moscow — his “transformation,” apparently, did not outlast the campaign.

Aside from winning elections, US consultants get the unenviable but lucrative job of making bad guys look good.

Consider Racepoint Group, a Waltham, Mass.-based public relations company that, among other Herculean tasks, got paid $75,000 plus expenses to polish up the image of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2007.

According to documents that Racepoint filed with the US Justice Department, it was hired to “draw world attention to several important positioning points,” including the fact that Gaddafi (referred to in the proposal as “the Leader”) was “an intellectual and a philosopher,” and that Libya was “an Arab Muslim country engaging in its own form of democracy.”

Libya’s “own form of democracy,” just four years later, degenerated into a bitter civil war, and included the sodomy and death of the philosopher king at the hands of victorious rebel fighters.

Racepoint Group, which also accepted a contract to rehabilitate Rwanda’s image in 2009, is hardly unique, and its relatively modest fees stand in stark contrast to a firm like New York-based Ketchum, Inc., which is providing public relations advice to the Russian government.

A recent filing with the Justice Department showed that Ketchum received nearly $2 million in one six-month period in 2011, and, according to a ProPublica investigation, has been paid almost $23 million since 2006.

While street protests against the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Vladimir Putin engulf Moscow, Ketchum is intent on portraying Russia as “a place favorable to foreign investment,” and facilitating the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

Russia is no stranger to international consultants, of course. Ever since its carefully stage-managed 1996 presidential election, foreign politicos have been creating controversy in Moscow.

When President Boris Yeltsin declared that he would run to retain his post in 1996, many scoffed: the sclerotic leader, whose drunken antics had shocked the world and embarrassed his countrymen, had approval ratings in the single digits.

Enter a team of American political consultants, who advised and packaged the president for the two-round battle. Their efforts have been immortalized — and fictionalized — in a 2003 Hollywood film starring Jeff Goldblum, “Spinning Boris.”

The consultants were not shy about taking credit for the win, although several sources, including The New York Times, attempted to insert a bit of reality into the narrative. Yeltsin’s victory owed much more to his government’s firm control over the media, which even managed to cover up the fact that the ailing candidate had a heart attack in the middle of the campaign.

The trend continues.

According to journalist Walter Shapiro, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a nation in possession of an upcoming election must be in want of an American political consultant.”

As long as the nation has full coffers, that is.

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