Today is one of those days in which we are particularly grateful that George W. Bush is no longer the president of the United States.
The news from Afghanistan is grim. With the latest round of deaths, we pass a milestone: 2,000 US combatants have died in what is now the longest war in American history. The milestone has been reached just as the surge in troops has come to an end without achieving the goals of pacifying the country or even launching peace talks with the Taliban. Our Afghan “allies” remain as corrupt and ineffectual as ever, with the added wrinkle that the most dangerous place in Afghanistan for US troops these days seems to be the neighborhood of US-armed and trained Afghan forces, who are shooting and blowing up their nominal allies faster than the Taliban can do it.
This is all bad news and very disturbing, but there is a crumb of comfort to be had. Because these failures happened on President Obama’s watch, the mainstream press isn’t particularly interested in relentless, non-stop scrutiny of the unpleasant news. If George W. Bush were president now, and had ordered the surge and was responsible for the strategic decisions taken and not taken in Afghanistan over the last four years, the mainstream press would be rubbing our noses in his miserable failures and inexcusable blunders 24/7. The New York Times and the Washington Post would be treating us to pictures of every fallen soldier. The PBS Newshour would feature nightly post-mortems on “America’s failed strategies in the Afghan War” and every arm-chair strategist in America would be filling the op-ed pages with the brilliant 20/20 hindsight ideas that our pathetic, clueless, failed president was too dumb and too cocky to have had.
There would be no end to the woes and the recriminations. There would be the most moving and eloquent examples of hand wringing in the New York Review of Books, elegantly demonstrating that the cretinous assumptions and moral failings that led Bush into his failed Afghan policy weren’t his alone, but reflected broader, deeper failings in America itself. One is almost sorry for the sake of the authors of these diatribes that Bush is gone; the failure of our Afghan strategy is so sweeping, so unavoidable, that it would be the best possible backdrop against which to paint a stirring portrait of a failed president misleading a flawed people. What works of polemical literature have been lost, what inspired jeremiads will never be penned, what scalding portraits of America’s inherent flaws will never see the light of day because W left the White House too soon.
If only President Bush had uttered that fatuous nonsense about “wars of choice” and “wars of necessity” that President Obama used: how much fun the press could have had mocking his grotesque and pathetic efforts at “strategery.”
As it is, however, we just get the bare bones of what’s happening in Afghanistan, with no long, rolling wallows in the failure, no painstaking, step by step analysis of just how a credulous and inexperienced president ordered the military to execute a strategy which it didn’t recommend and couldn’t make work. There will be no analysis of how someone like Vice President Biden has been wrong at every twist and turn of the wars of the last ten years — though if he were Vice President Cheney every single error he had ever made would be hurled in our faces night after night.
While the Bush administration made its share of mistakes after 9/11, and many of them were serious, the press overdid the wallowing and recriminations back then, and we don’t want the Obama administration to get the same treatment now. In a perfect world, the press would have been less relentlessly focused on Bush’s destruction then and less determined to protect Obama now, but covering presidents in wartime is complicated.
Failure should not be swept under the rug, but it should be put in context. Fighting a war is the supreme test of statesmanship because it is so unbelievably complicated and hard. There are domestic and global political issues to factor in. There are the politics of your enemy. There are the shifting realities of combat itself, as the enemy reacts to everything you do with a counter-strategy of his own. The implicit assumptions in the press that anything less than a flawless performance in war is prima facie evidence of bumbling incompetence merely reflects the cluelessness and arrogance of a pseudo-educated elite that thinks textbooks on theory and lessons in political correctness plus good SAT scores amount to a grounding in the real business of life.
There may not be any real answers to America’s conundrums in Afghanistan. Between the politics of Pakistan, alliance politics in NATO, the realities of Central Asia, the divisions within Afghanistan itself and the nature of the Taliban, there may not be a shining path that leads us out of the muck into the sunny upland slopes of victorious peace. That isn’t the fault of either President Bush or President Obama and it doesn’t mean that a quick withdrawal is a better course. History is filled with nasty, sputtering conflicts that don’t have happy or quick endings. It is the way the world works, and struggling gamely with unpleasant realities has been what most world leaders have been doing pretty much since time began.
Had both W and The One understood this better, they might have made wiser strategic choices in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The belief that complicated and tangled strategic problems have simple and elegant solutions is one of the most pervasive American assumptions about the world we live in. On the positive side, that belief leads us to work very hard and dream big—and more often than not, we accomplish great things even if we never quite achieve our visionary dreams for a democratic and prosperous world. But there are times when both presidents and their critics are trapped by these assumptions; presidents devise over-elaborate and finely-tuned plans that fail, and critics judge that failure against impossibly high standards. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, for example, all developed unrealistic plans for grand solutions to the Israel-Palestine problem, and were all judged harshly for their failures to achieve a solution that was never in the cards.
And so, while we are glad this morning that we are being spared the kind of vitriolic hatred and relentless criticism that the press would be pouring on President Bush if he were in office at this critical time, we don’t want the press to do unto Obama that which it did unto Bush. For a period after 9/11 the press was too indulgent toward President Bush; then as the post invasion situation in Iraq went all pear-shaped, the press snapped back to its natural anti-Bush animus and made up for lost time by becoming unremittingly, destructively and undiscriminatingly hostile. There is a happy medium between clueless cheer leading and attempts to destroy: it is called responsible analysis, and we could use a lot more of it. A press that neither waves pom-poms nor throws stink bombs non-stop is an important component of healthy democratic society; there are plenty of excellent reporters out there who want to do exactly that. May their tribe prosper and their numbers increase.