The Media Gets War Wrong, Again
A "bad week" for Biden, or a bad decade for America?
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The tragic costs of the long war in Afghanistan have been on vivid display.
You are reading my newsletter, which means you already follow the news closely, so I won’t repeat last week’s developments here. Working “inside the news” has felt odd during the U.S. exit, however, because so much of the Washington-based coverage has been reflexively critical of withdrawal — which is virtually never an easy or “smooth” process — and sometimes quite hawkish.
The people who “narrate” our wars — how they start and how they end — are using a lens that the public has largely rejected. That is why it seems like much of the media coverage has been off base, if not completely wrong.
Specifically, many influential D.C. voices overlapped on a critique that:
‘The Biden administration bungled this withdrawal operation,’ and
‘The withdrawal will now hurt and define Biden’s presidency.’
This has been pushed by Republican officials, who may be expected to oppose many moves by the opposing party, and foreign policy experts, and independent journalists. For example, top Republicans have derided the operation as:
“Biden’s Saigon moment”
“a stain on this President and his presidency”
(John Bolton, Rep. Scalise, Rep. McCaul, respectively)
Now those are partisan attacks, sure. But it’s broader than that.
Take New York Times Washington correspondent David Sanger. Under a headline about “DEFEAT,” he declared that after seven months of Pres. Biden’s “much-needed competence” on Covid, the economy and legislative breakthroughs:
…everything about America’s last days in Afghanistan shattered the imagery.
Or take one of the leaders of the national security establishment, founder of the influential Eurasia Group, Ian Bremmer. This past week, he leaned into the concern leaving Afghanistan carries a major risk going forward.
The risk is a future foreign policy problem in the country could “destroy” Biden’s entire presidency:
What if we have a hostage crisis? What if we have a firefight? What if Americans get killed? What if we ended up not being able to get all these Americans out?
That destroys Biden’s presidency — and there is a real chance of that happening.
So, deep breath. It’s always true that anything is possible.
But the thrust of these D.C. arguments is not really about what the ideal foreign policy should be. Instead, it’s whether this exit policy will somehow “destroy” or “shatter” or “define” The Biden Presidency… in the eyes of the public.
So this can be at least partially fact-checked.
Time to Go
Here’s what the actual evidence suggests.
Most Americans abhor the Taliban, and see the real downsides to this exit, and still back withdrawal. After two decades of war in the Middle East, most Americans support lightening the entire U.S. footprint, pulling away from these long wars.
62% of the public agreed with Biden that this war became unwinnable and should end.
(Note this is a higher share of agreement than on many divisive issues, from the 2020 election to covid policy).
New polls taken during the fall of Kabul last week, when some of those worst “images” were coming out, still show more Americans backing withdrawal than staying.
Any pollster can tell you those numbers are a “floor.” They come amidst this toughest part of the actual, logistical withdraw.
Historically, we don’t see the public randomly shift to backing a re-invasion of a country after the U.S. left. (Most historians find that kind of shift is only sparked by a new external event, like a major terror attack.)
So when it comes to foreign policy within a democracy — where the public should have some say over the wars it will fund and die for — Americans are currently less hawkish than the national security establishment, and some of the press. The recent speculation coming out of Washington just does not match actual public opinion.
If anything, there is evidence that people can distinguish between a clearly objectionable outcome, where the Taliban returns to power, and the foreign policy question of whether the U.S. has a reason to spend another decade, year, or week in Afghanistan.
Thanks Ari. I am very much behind Biden's choice to call it quits. He has the guts that it takes to do this and I think that history will praise him for his brave move.
Couldn't agree more, Ari. The more they spout these unbalanced words, the greater the odds they become cemented in voter minds. And (as usual), we're missing out on in-depth discussions about commercial entities (USA and others) that highly benefitted from 20 years of tax payer funding, while knowing their products were being wasted and falling into the wrong hands.