I know I'm starting to sound dogmatically grumpy about the American press. Maybe I should stop reading the Daily Howler for a couple of weeks.
But the fact is that our corporate news media are becoming a bigger and bigger problem for the functioning of democracy. Democracy really does require an informed voting population. And our news reporting is at times downright strange.
I've been following the issue of Spain's planned withdrawal from Kosovo. You can find it in the American news but you kind of have to know that it happened to be able to find it. And, come to think of it, the English-language reporting I've seen on it came from Reuters.
It's become a bit of a flap in Spain's internal daily politics. The opposition conservatives complain that the Socialist President (prime minister) José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Carme Chacón, Spain's first female Defense Minister, handled the announcement poorly by not giving the proper notification to the US and the other NATO countries. A State Department spokesman slapped their hands in a public statement the other day, though not mentioning any Spanish officials by name.
As I've said before, it's hard to know exactly what's behind it. There may have just been a bit of a diplomatic goof. But the basic issue is that Cheney and Bush insisted on pushing for formal Kosovo independence against the official United Nations status of Kosovo as part of Serbia and against the not insignificant opposition of Russia. One consequence is that Spain has not recognized Kosovo and decided that it wasn't appropriate to have troops there under those conditions. The timing of the announcement was awkward from some points of view. It comes a few days before an official visit from Serbia. And also just before Obama's first in-person European conference.
Spain has been an active part of NATO's KFOR mission in Kosovo. And also plays a significant role in the Afghanistan War. Which may be one reason why their news actually focused on what Obama said this weekend about that war. This editorial, Viraje estratégicoEl País 24.03.2009, discusses the war with a different set of facts, or at least a different framing of them, than I recall hearing from the American mainstream press.
Maybe that's because our media is more interested in manufacturing non-existent Obama "gaffes" than in reporting a war in which American troops are fighting and dying: Eric Boehlert at the County Fair blog discusses what our sad media focused on in Obama's interview Sunday in Who wouldn't have laughed at Steve Kroft's absurd question? 03/23/09.
The El País editorial not only discusses Obama's statement in that interview that we need an exit strategy from the Afghanistan War. It also makes the interpretation that Obama has in fact already reduced the scope of American goals in Afghanistan. Or, more specifically, it says that Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a change in the mission this past January by saying that democratizing Afghanistan would no longer be a goal, and that the mission would instead concentrate on fighting "Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations" along the Pakistani border.
The editorial also points out that the increase in the number of US troops already announced isn't necessarily inconsistent with a narrower mission. If Obama were to announce a firm deadline for something like full US military withdrawal in, say, two years, that could conceivably require a short-term increase in troops, as well.
The Spanish flap over the Kosovo withdrawal is relevant here. Because, whether Zapatero's government intended it that way or not, it's a reminder that the US is dependent on NATO allies including Spain in the Afghanistan War (which I notice the press and expert commentators are starting to call the Afghan War now). And that the patience of European publics for endless and hopeless warfare there may not be great as that of the Beltway Village.
The nature of the mission is a more important point than one would gather from the skimpy US reporting on the war. Former CBS star Dan Rather has a Daily Beast column called What Obama Doesn't Know About Afghanistan 03/23/09. It doesn't inspire the greatest confidence in his analysis that he opens by saying that the more times he visits Afghanistan, the less he knows about it. Or, more specifically, "The more you go there, the more you know how much you don’t know."
With that ambiguous declaration of authority, Rather makes a set of recommendations, the first of which sounds like sober Realism, at least at first glance:
In pursuing this war, the U.S. needs to go big and go long or go home. To succeed within the parameters we have laid out for ourselves in Afghanistan will take a much longer military commitment and the spending of a lot more money over greater time than most people have been led to believe. Consider, for example, a report in the New York Times that even members of President Obama’s national-security team were taken aback by the projected cost of expanding the Afghan army.
Making a strong and enduring commitment in blood and money may be worth it - what we have done in and for South Korea, where we have been engaged militarily and financially for more than 60 years, is one starting point for consideration. But we can have no illusions, and we have not yet had a candid and meaningful national debate about what it may take to achieve our goals in Afghanistan. We have not thoughtfully considered, as a nation, whether we want to do this and whether we can do it even if we choose to. [my emphasis]
The problem with the "first glance" impression is that this was very current and relevant advice for 2001, when the Cheney-Bush administration was making the original decision to go to war there. (Back around that time, newsman Dan Rather was saying, "When my country's at war, I'm at war.") We're now in our eighth year of war in Afghanistan, and the friendly government we installed barely controls the capital city. And there have been press rumors that the new administration would like to dump Hamid Karzai as the President there.
In those circumstance, the circumstances in which we actually find ourselves right now, to say that "we have not yet had a candid and meaningful national debate about what it may take to achieve our goals in Afghanistan" is not so much a challenge to careful thinking as it is an admission that all we can do is salvage something from a mostly wasteful war with dubious practical results, at least since the initial strikes on actual Al Qa'ida trooop/cadre concentrations.
The final of Rather's four recomendations on that war is this:
Finally, we need to better utilize the resources we have in Afghanistan. Women are the group that suffered the most under Taliban rule and, if enough of their voices can be heard and they can be empowered to matter, they could provide an invaluable bulwark against the Taliban's return. Putting a heavy emphasis on improving conditions for women, children, and families is imperative. Some will say this can’t be done in an Islamic society as deeply traditional as that of Afghanistan. But where there’s a will there’s a way.
This is, frankly, a colonialist way of thinking, that we can simply impose our ideas of culture, no matter how transcendently valuable they may be, on an unwilling and hostile population. It is just another variation of the same foolish arrogance of power that made Rummy think that after the Taliban government was chased out of Kabul that the war was pretty much over and we could move on to new blitzkrieg regime-change strikes in Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The idea that we are going to radically improve conditions for Afghan women and children by bombing their villages for 10 more years (with our smart bombs that never kill innocents, of course) is an invitation to new disasters. And, honestly, is a country that allowed Cheney and Bush to get away with an eight-year political jihad against Constitutional government in the US actually capable of installing a democracy in Afghanistan? Much less raising the status of women to the Western level?
What Rather recommends would be a huge expansion of the NATO mission there. And, as enlightened as it sounds in his formulation, several real-world experiences are relevant. One is that American politicians normally show a pointed interest in the conditions of women in Muslim countries only when we are getting ready to go to war against them. The Republican administration for the previous eight years voted consistently with the Vatican and conservative Muslim countries on international issues related to women's rights, AIDS prevention, birth control and abortion.
Iraq prior to the current war was known for having the highest relative status of women in any Arab country; it would take blind faith to imagine that between the destruction of their country and the religious sectarianizing of the country's politics that Iraqi women on the whole or better off now, or will be for decades to come. Finally, in Afghanistan in the 1980s, that Soviet Russian Commie Evil Empire did seriously try to improve the condition of women in that country. And that became one of the main grievances against the USSR that motivated Afghan men to join the Muslim terrorist groups fighting the Soviets. Although back then the US supported the Muslim terrorist groups opposing women's rights and secular government, greatly boosting their military capabilities and spawning a new kind of Muslim Terrorist International. But we did give those groups a nicer name back then. We called them brave, independent mujahideen freedom fighters instead of evil Muslim terrorists.