The Hype: What’s Going on with the Media’s Silence on Afghanistan?

Inflation/No chance
To increase/Finance
Bills piled up/Sky high
Send that boy off/To die

— Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues”

Of course, the Prince of Soul was singing about the Vietnam war. But had he lived to see 2009, Gaye, who would have turned 70 this week, would still wanna holler. Inflation looms, unemployment is the worst it’s been in decades, and an American president is once again committing boys and girls to fight a threat we don’t understand in a country whose terrain our forces are disadvantageously unfamiliar with.

First, let’s understand how we got here. On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama, then a member of the Illinois legislature, delivered a speech stating his opposition to the impending war against Iraq, a speech largely ignored by the media at the time but one that probably put him in the White House six years later.

Naturally, he had the support from the peacenik no-blood-for-oil set. But they were in the minority. The rest of our then-center-right nation was still reeling and blood thirsty from 9-11 and our representatives in Congress were happy accommodate us, authorizing George W. Bush’s misadventure into Mesopotamia.

Fast forward to last month when President Obama unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Did you hear it? No, not the speech: the awkward and mysterious silence that followed the announcement of additional 17,000 troops headed for Afghanistan with another few brigades in the coming months.

To revise the title of Gaye’s classic album for 2009, just “WTF is going on” here?

If you voted for the president last fall, chances are one of the main factors was because you considered him the pro-peace alternative, even if he’s said all along that he favored going after the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was easier to be suspicious because Bush and his vice-president and so many people who work for them had ties to Big Oil and Big Defense Contract and would reap cash windfalls from the war. Obama’s only had jobs in academia and public service so his motives must be pure, you tell yourself. Besides, do they even have oil in Afghanistan?

On the flipside, if you you’re one of those people who voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin and delights in spewing the prez’s full name every chance you get, you count yourself among those who feared Obama would punk out when he came up against al-Qaeda.

In explaining his rationale for the escalation, Obama said: “We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists.”

Now, those on both the left and right are invariably scratching their heads asking the logical question, how is it possible to squash extremism in a foreign land without controlling it and dictating its course?

The only people more befuddled than the American public are the reliably uninformed mainstream media and pundits, who have thus far exhibited as much difficulty articulating a position about Obama’s war as Jay Leno’s joke writers have poking fun of him.

It’s almost like what the reaction would have been had George W. Bush. . . pretty much done the opposite of anything he did.

Among staunch progressives, there have been some murmurs of dissent. For example, The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel urged Obama to not make Afghanistan his Vietnam War but she did it without the vituperative rhetoric that she and her cohort heaped on Bush. But liberal blogs, most notably The Huffington Post, haven’t come anywhere close to “printing” a critical word of the Afghanistan escalation. The same could be said for MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, who signs off his show every night reminding us of how many days have passed since the previous president declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.

Nor has there been nary a peep from most major American newspapers. In fact, the influential New York Times, which editorialized in favor of disarming Saddam Hussein in 2003, said it was time to leave Iraq in 2007, last month called Iraq an “ill-conceived war of choice” and Obama’s Pak-ghanistan strategy “worth trying.”

Conservative media isn’t exactly beating the drum for war either, not for the one in Afghanistan anyway. Ex-NYT columnist Bill Kristol, along with McPalin, claimed throughout the presidential campaign that Obama didn’t have the stones to battle terrorism. Kristol, a leading voice for conservatives, has given a weak thumbs up to the idea of keeping the pressure on Muslim extremists but has neither endorsed the Afghanistan surge nor abandoned the right’s your-child-go-boom-boom-if-Obama-gets-elected meme.

And where’s the FOX News gang and Weekly Standard? Quiet as well. Stephen Schwartz, writing in the Standard, went so far as to dismiss wholesale Pak-ghanistan and other Obama Middle East initiatives as resting on “unrealistic expectations — desert mirages, one might say — surrounding the motives of terrorists and other enemies of freedom.”

For the record, this isn’t a call for media to endorse any specific administration proposal. What we can’t have is a repeat of the media’s widespread gullibility and failure to fulfill its obligation as democracy’s gatekeepers with respect to the run-up to the Iraq war. Nor would it be particularly beneficial to tear down the president down without giving his plans a chance to succeed. Or fail.

There is a danger in a media that’s so beholden ideologically that when wading into unchartered waters – say, dealing with a president who was both the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate and perhaps the most hawkish Democratic commander-in-chief in a generation – that they simply remain silent.

Even as media organizations falter, even collapse, people are consuming news and information at a more rapid pace than ever before in the history of mankind. More than ever we need our media to tell us just what the hell is going on.

The Hype is junk for political news junkies.

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