[Posted by Karl]
That’s the question Michael A. Cohen asked at The New Republic:
While no one can be sure how escalation in Afghanistan will turn out, the warning signs are blinking red. Yet the reaction from many of the president’s liberal and left-of-center supporters has been acquiescence and even silence. The Pentagon report—like much of the recent bad news out of Afghanistan—caused barely a ripple on the left. It’s a familiar pattern. The American Prospect, along with Salon, has devoted enormous and laudable energy to covering civil liberties issues related to the U.S. war on terror, but has run only one major article on Afghanistan since Obama’s December speech at West Point.
The Center for American Progress’s Wonk Room blog has not run a headlined story about the war since January. At Talking Points Memo, which is perhaps the most prominent liberal blog, Afghanistan rarely rates a mention. Paul Krugman, a frequent critic of the Iraq War (and President Obama), has not written a column on Afghanistan since the president took office. And The New Republic itself has largely avoided critical consideration of the war. (The Nation and Mother Jones have been exceptions to this relative silence.)
So why are so many liberal voices muted?
The obvious explanation is to be avoided, so Cohen offers up three lame rationalizations. The first is that “[t]here are fewer reporters in Afghanistan than in Iraq—and little in the way of TV coverage. As a result, it is difficult to get a clear sense of what is happening on the ground and what is working and not working.” Yet a premise of Cohen’s piece is that the US mission in Afghanistan is not working; he must be getting some information somewhere, yes? Moreover, the establishment media’s coverage of Iraq was badly flawed, for reasons above and beyond political bias. Indeed, Cohen’s third reason — that the misunderstood “success” of the surge has led many progressives to now “feel chastened about speaking out against Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan” — tacitly admits that the establishment media’s coverage of Iraq warped public perceptions of the conflict.
Cohen’s remaining rationale is that “in contrast to the war in Iraq, liberals generally support the objectives of the war in Afghanistan—and for a good part of the past seven years have been calling on the U.S. to devote more attention to the war there, rather than Iraq.” How does that square with the facts on the ground? Congressional Democrats were threatening a one-year deadline last year. Both the Obama administration and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to twist Democratic arms to pass the emergency war-spending bill in the House by eight votes. Pelosi later said that Obama would have to make the case himself to the Democratic caucus for votes to support a “surge” in Afghanistan this year; those votes are going to be hard to find. Furthermore, two-thirds of Democrats do not think the Afghanistan mission has been worth its costs. It seems doubtful that liberals would be more committed to the mission than Democrats generally.
Spencer Ackerman offers a raft of similarly lame rationalizations. For example, the fact that ISAF is a NATO operation has done more to reveal the limits of NATO than legitimize the mission. But Ackerman comes dangerously close to the truth in offering a final reason:
The lack of a political fight over Afghanistan. Republicans have either backed the strategy or acquiesced to it. The absence of partisan bickering means the more-ubiquitous media outlets don’t treat Afghanistan as a contentious issue. (Yes, this is a structural failure of contemporary journalism.) From the liberal perspective, it would be a tendentious to ignore that liberals are just going to be less likely to get into a heated rage over a president from the Democratic Party. That’s neither a defense nor an accusation that liberals are intellectually dishonest people, just a recognition that human beings have a natural tendency to be harder on the Other Fellow than One of Us.
Any number of Ackerman’s friends know the hip term for this: “epistemic closure.” (Ace could explain why it’s also a version of “manufacturing consent.”) Why this is better than pure partisan hackery when it comes to key questions of national security and the lives of American troops is left unexplained. Moreover, the people harping on the “epistemic closure” of the Right — most of whom were quite critical of the war policies of the Bush era — will likely never bother to explain why liberal wagon-circling on the war is less of a problem.
As someone who still supports the mission in Afghanistan, it is tempting to overlook the behavior of the Left here. However, it is difficult to ignore the subtext (also present in a range of war-related issues), which is that a Democrat in the White House will face far less opposition from the Left and its media enablers in pursuing the war than a Republican. That is no way to fight a war or govern a nation.