Once conservative columnist George Will espoused a conventional critique of the Afghanistan War last week and said our troops should come home now, there has been a herd mentality among columnists to join in on this increasingly popular position. In one way or another, these columnists have used one or a combination of these arguments: no foreign nation has ever succeeded in the rugged and undeveloped terrain of Afghanistan, it’s not worth American casualties, the logic defense officials use for Afghanistan should apply to intervening in a place like Yemen, and predator drones alone can do an adequate job of killing terrorists. All of these arguments are legitimate and compelling. But there’s no reason to come to these conclusions now; these arguments should have been made while President Obama decided to send more troops in February or they should not be made at all.
To illustrate what I am talking about, let’s look at the writings of NY Times columnist Tom Friedman. Before the casualties began to mount in July and August, he wrote optimistically about America’ chances of succeeding in Afghanistan nation-building. Exploiting the always tempting anecdote, he wrote, “When you see two little Afghan girls crouched on the front steps of their new school, clutching tightly with both arms the notebooks handed to them by a U.S. admiral — as if they were their first dolls — it’s hard to say: ‘Let’s just walk away.’ Not yet.” Yet months later, when the obvious and expected casualties began to amass in greater numbers, he lamented in yesterday’s column, “This is a much bigger undertaking than we originally signed up for. Before we adopt a new baby — Afghanistan — we need to have a new national discussion about this project: what it will cost, how much time it could take, what U.S. interests make it compelling, and, most of all, who is going to oversee this policy?” In defense of President Obama, he can’t flippantly decide in February it’s worth it and then walk away when the expected bad gets bad. Once the war machine gets going, it takes a long time to slow it down again—yet columnists write as if decisions can be easily reversible. Why didn’t Mr. Friedman contribute to this “national discussion” in February?
This is not to pick on Friedman in particular; anyone who goes to Realclealpolitics.com or Realclearworld.com with any regularity has seen a recent spike in anti-Afghanistan columns contemporaneously with a surge in casualties and marked decline in public support for the war. Correlation or causation? And if we revisit earlier articles about Afghanistan when the war had more public support, we can see several examples of effusiveness that borders on jingoism. David Brooks, another NY Times columnist, titled an op-ed in late March “The Winnable War,” and concluded, “Foreign policy experts can promote one doctrine or another, but this energetic and ambitious response — amid economic crisis and war weariness — says something profound about America’s DNA.” When the war worsens over the next few months, shall he too be predictably against it? I’ve seen much more foolish bets than that one.
The point is that many of these columnists who supported the war six months ago knew we’d be exactly where we are today. Nothing surprising has happened yet. But those who so rapidly change their opinion seem to be obsessed with being where the ephemeral conventional wisdom lies. By doing so, their columns-columns that are in theory supposed to challenge and inform their readers- are nothing more than a naked attempt to corroborate status quo thinking.