Obama Sidesteps Afghan War -- With Media's Help

Obama Sidesteps Afghan War -- With Media's Help

By Richard Benedetto - August 8, 2013

Nearly buried beneath the mid-summer hullabaloo over Anthony Weiner, the Zimmerman trial, the Snowden leaks and A-Rod’s drug woes was news that American support for the war in Afghanistan has hit an all-time low.

Moreover, and perhaps more astonishing in these days of hyper political polarization, Afghanistan is one area where there is remarkable bipartisan agreement:

Majorities of Democrats and Republicans now say that the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, according to a late-July ABC News-Washington Post poll.

That should be big news, but it created hardly a ripple out there in media land. Afghanistan is oh so yesterday.

We hardly ever hear a word about Afghanistan out of the White House, let alone from President Obama. The strategy appears to be that if the president stays out of it, he won’t get blamed, or at least it won’t be seen as his problem when things go bad. Thus, most of the administration’s public talk about Afghanistan comes from the Pentagon and military commanders in the field. The commander-in-chief rarely makes speeches on Afghanistan, and rates nary a mention in news accounts. And that, apparently, is the way he likes it.

It is not as if there has been no news reporting from that war-torn country. There has been quite a bit of it lately, but little has been good.

For example, a front-page story in Monday’s Washington Post details one of the big problems the United States faces is it winds down its military presence there: the closing of a notorious prison for enemy detainees dubbed “The Second Guantanamo.” The story outlining the headaches goes on for 1,320 words, but Obama is not directly mentioned once. There is a reference to the “Obama administration,” but there is no response in the story from the White House. Nor was one sought (or at least it wasn’t mentioned in the piece).

There are quotes from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. There also are quotes from South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, a Republican, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale and lawyers from two human rights groups advocating for the prisoners. There is even an interview with the brother of one of the detainees.

But there is nothing to indicate that this is a problem for the president, who has had his woes trying to close the first Guantanamo. He’s busy trying to plug holes in his health care plan, making speeches on the economy, bashing Republicans and denouncing “phony scandals” in Washington. Don’t bother him with Afghanistan.

Similarly, The Post had another Afghanistan story on its front page on July 9. It revealed that the U.S. military erected a new 64,000-square-foot, state of-the-art war operations headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan at a cost of $34 million. There is one hitch, however. The building is not going to be used because most U.S. troops are going to be pulling out and will not need it.

“Even after Obama decided to remove an additional 34,000 troops this year, the project continued apace. Cubicles filled the floor. Theater seats arrived. The contractor made modifications to address problems with emergency exits,” the article said.

A two-star Army general who was granted anonymity by the article’s reporter said, “What the hell were they thinking? There was never any justification to build something this fancy.”

Incidentally, the headquarters was built for the Marines, not the Army.

One might think that reporters working on this story would seek comment on the obvious foul-up and waste of money from the White House. No. It is as if all responsibility lies with the Pentagon and not with the commander-in-chief. Afghanistan, as far as the White House and the media are concerned, is the Pentagon’s war, not Obama’s.

Nonetheless, Iraq was George W. Bush’s war, not the Pentagon’s. And we in the media never let him forget it.

We have increasingly short memories. In this age of New Media and instant communication, if it happened last week, it’s old news. If it happened last year, it’s ancient history. If it happened four years ago, who cares?

We tend to forget that during his 2008 campaign, Obama referred to Iraq as “the wrong war” and Afghanistan “the right war.” And to that end, he announced in 2009 that he would send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the latter. But almost in the same breath, he promised that after 18 months U.S. troops would start coming home. That withdrawal is underway. Yet, the poll shows most Americans have no clear idea of what real good ever came out it.

Despite the drawdown, Americans are still dying in Afghanistan. In fact, more than twice as many U.S. troops have been killed there under Obama’s leadership (1,629 in four-plus years) than under Bush’s (630 in seven-plus years).

Few Americans probably know that. But they do know that things are not going well there. That’s why majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents say the effort was a mistake. Obama can read the polls. With his approval ratings sinking, he knows Afghanistan is a political loser. And it is why, with media help, he avoids talking about it. 

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies at George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benedettopress.


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