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Media Gives President a Pass Again

The media has by and large given President Obama’s failed Afghanistan policy a pass—just as it has his larger foreign policy missteps.

by Walter Russell Mead     •     The American Interest

Media Bias - ObamaOnce again, be very glad we don’t have a Republican president right now. If we did, we would be treated to a merciless media pounding, night-and-day, on the series of strategic failures, mistakes and false starts that have characterized America’s war strategy in Afghanistan since 2009. We’d be getting constant reminders of how the President, who repeatedly said that this was a just war that America had to win, and who told us that we should vote for him because he wouldn’t let anything distract him from the vital task of winning said war, hasn’t managed to win it, or even end it, after six long years.

Fortunately for us, there is a Democrat in the White House who, by and large, the press likes and wants to succeed. Thus our newspapers and television screens are blessedly free from invective, derision and snark when it comes to news from Afghanistan. Witness the measured lede we get from the NYT:

Months after President Obama formally declared that the United States’ long war against the Taliban was over in Afghanistan, the American military is regularly conducting airstrikes against low-level insurgent forces and sending Special Operations troops directly into harm’s way under the guise of “training and advising.”

In justifying the continued presence of the American forces in Afghanistan, administration officials have insisted that the troops’ role is relegated to counterterrorism, defined as tracking down the remnants of Al Qaeda and other global terrorist groups, and training and advising the Afghan security forces who have assumed the bulk of the fight.

In public, officials have emphasized that the Taliban are not being targeted unless it is for “force protection” — where the insurgents were immediately threatening American forces.

President Obama has been permitted to fail in Afghanistan quietly and off center stage. We hear nothing anymore about the months of agonized reflection before choosing strategies that didn’t accomplish their goals. We never see mentions of his 2008 campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan—”the necessary war”—against which we might be asked to measure what has actually been achieved.

That’s not in itself necessarily a bad thing. The national press doesn’t get better when it turns into an echo chamber for partisan vitriol directed against a sitting President whose policies and reputation the media is out to destroy.
But the heavy media bias against Republicans and for mildly to solidly left-of-center Democrats isn’t just a question of conscious and malicious bias. When the press puts Republicans through the wringer while giving Democrats the best deal it can, it’s often a reflection of the groupthink that comes naturally and almost inevitably to those who’ve spent their lives as bubble babies in the ultra-liberal world of the contemporary American campus where intellectual homogeneity is considered a virtue.

There are, of course, ideologues and warriors in the mainstream media who consciously see their mission as changing the country they are writing about rather than keeping it informed. These people are not exactly rare, and while they are following their consciences in their own way when they actively twist and distort the news in the service of a pre-existing agenda, they are activists with press cards rather than objective journalists. Many of their colleagues, however—genuine journalists—are so steeped in a worldview, and so profoundly convinced that there is no viable or decent alternative to it, that they simply go with the flow. The news articles and opinion pieces they write aren’t biased in the sense that they are consciously telling untruths or twisting facts. They are reporting the world as they see it. And in that world, Obama is a master strategist, a visionary diplomat, and an innovative thinker out to change the way the world works.

The war in Afghanistan makes Obama look like a mix of a panderer—telling Americans what he thought they wanted to hear in 2008—and a bungler—struggling unsuccessfully with the ugly realities of the war ever since as plan after plan falls short of its goals. The fact that the President’s plans for an end to a combat role for the U.S. seem to have fizzled is noted in the Times piece without any reference to the unbroken string of failed U.S. strategies in Afghanistan since 2009, or to the battles between the White House and the Pentagon over strategy that filled the media back when President Obama was developing his master plan for Afghanistan. This seems more like unconscious cocoon-spinning than a deliberate attempt to make the President look good; past Obama failures don’t strike liberals as important. They are noise, not data, and it’s the job of the press to separate the two.

The New York Times would almost certainly not cover this story the same way if a GOP president had won an election promising to win the war in Afghanistan, had imposed his personal vision and strategy on the Pentagon’s war plans, and after six years had made announcements that the Times believed to be inaccurate about the end of a combat role for U.S. troops. It would be termed a scandal, a national tragedy, and the brightest spotlights the media owned would be riveted on the sad spectacle of a hapless, flailing, incapacitated White House. We would hear a lot more than we do about career officers who disagree with the administration’s strategies being ruthlessly sidelined, and a hostile press would be scrutinizing the Joint Chiefs for signs of toadyism and opportunism.

This is not to say that the press should treat Obama as if he were some kind of horrible Republican. The reality is that Afghanistan is a tough place. The strikes of 2001—when the Taliban government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to U.S. justice after allowing Al Qaeda to plan atrocities from its territory—made war inevitable and necessary. But the nature of Afghanistan itself, and the complicated web of interests and influence among the rival states around it, was always going to make stabilization and withdrawal hard.

Obama should have been criticized over his smarmy and vacuous claims to have a solution for the problem back in 2008, but the press was more interested in crucifying Bush and wounding McCain than in offering the public a serious account of a genuine dilemma. What was clearly true back in 2008 was that the U.S. had won a difficult and shaky victory in Iraq after a war that should in hindsight not have been launched, while the smaller and more justifiable war in Afghanistan still offered no serious prospect of a happy ending.

The wisest course for the country would have been to consolidate and build on the victory in Iraq, however dubious the war’s origin had been, and to look for ways to downsize the Afghan conflict while securing the commitments we’d need to be able to withdraw. President Obama did pretty much the opposite, abandoning the effort in Iraq as quickly as possible while agonizing over unrealistic strategic options in Afghanistan that could never produce the results he sought.

Those were poor choices and the consequences dog the United States to this day. Those are not the only unfortunate strategic choices that this White House has made: two ill-conceived Middle East peace efforts, the reset, the muddles with Erdogan and Egypt, the Libya fiasco and the Syria meltdown also come to mind. A serious press would, hopefully without too much vitriol, reflect at this point on the pattern of poor strategic choices—and that record would play a larger role in the discussion over whether the President’s approach to Iran is a good idea.

The United States has a free press; it does not at the moment have a particularly strong or discerning one. The goal isn’t to replace the current liberal twist with a conservative one; it’s to enhance the analytic skills and objectivity of both liberal and conservative (not to mention centrist) journalists in the hope that over time the American conversation about the genuinely difficult and perplexing issues before us can become more grounded, more comprehensive, more balanced, and above all, more useful.