This article originally appeared in The Nation on July 20, 2010.
Rachel Maddow’s televised roadshow in Afghanistan ended last week with a one-hour personal interview with Richard Holbrooke, an “honor” she said. Maddow is very bright, witty, great in conversation, a pivotal person in the progressive community and among Democrats. But there was a potential Walter Cronkite moment in her interview, and Maddow passed on it.
Cronkite went to Vietnam in April 1968 to survey the state of that war, just as Maddow spent time in Afghanistan investigating the current reality. When Cronkite pronounced Vietnam as “mired in stalemate”, it is said that Lyndon Johnson went berserk. A few weeks later, Johnson relinquished his presidency. There were several factors in Johnson’s decision which seem all too parallel today. First, rank-and-file Democrats and their congressional representatives were turning dovish. Key advisors from the foreign policy establishment – known to LBJ as the Wise Men - were pronouncing the war unwinnable and too costly. In these circumstances, the Cronkite interview was a blow to Johnson, and his words then are worth underlining:
"To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
Isn’t this precisely the situation in Afghanistan today, or worse? The war itself is not going well. A Rolling Stone expose has forced the dumping of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by David Petraeus. A majority of House Democrats including Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently voted for an Afghanistan exit plan with a timetable for withdrawal.
Maddow is hardly gung-ho for war, but neither did she voice the sensibility of the 73 percent of Democrats who oppose the Obama war policy and favor a withdrawal timetable. What came across from Maddow is doubt about the effectiveness of the Afghanistan war, not opposition to it. It is the same doubt that Holbrooke, Petraeus and President Obama are seeking public platforms to reverse. Holbrooke thus was given a golden opportunity to shore up public opinion on the Democratic side of the spectrum.
Maddow never questioned Holbrooke’s repeated contention that Afghanistan is not Vietnam, where the youthful Holbrooke himself was involved in a failed counterinsurgency almost 40 years ago. That disaster – which became known as the Phoenix program – has been resurrected in today’s official Army/Marine warfighting manual as an experiment that might have succeeded if public opinion had remained faithful back home. The difference Holbrooke insists upon now is that Afghanistan is more important than Vietnam ever was because the American homeland has been attacked and, if we ever withdraw, will be attacked again.
Couldn’t Maddow have challenged the core justification for the war, not just how well the war is going? Indeed if American lives and national security are at stake, the military doctrine of the 50-80 year “long war” would seem justified.
Here is where independent journalism is so critical. Maddow might have asked why 100,000 US troops are fighting in a country where the CIA estimate of Al Qaeda numbers is less than 100, and whether the US intervention itself has pushed Al Qaeda to sanctuaries in Pakistan and Yemen [featured last week as the next Al Qaeda base in a New York Times cover story]. Since terrorist cells exist across Europe, Maddow might have employed her polemical wit to ask Holbrooke if NATO should invade its member nations.
To be fair to Maddow, she at one point wondered if “maybe the clock has run out” for saving Afghanistan, and questioned if the counterinsurgency campaign is being fought on the “wrong premise” that there really is an Afghanistan regime that can be revived. In her concluding summary, where she might have asserted like Cronkite that the war is “mired in stalemate” and “the only rational way out … is to negotiate”, Maddow instead was ambiguous, asserting on the one hand that it’s wrong to ask young Americans to fight and die if the Kabul regime is beyond repair, while on the other hand claiming that “development, training, support [are] OK, but lives, no. That’s the choice, not partisan, not even passionate. It is rational.” For Maddow, Afghanistan is a quandary, not a quagmire.
Letting Holbrooke repeatedly assert that the war serves our national security left Maddow – and by implication, anti-war critics in general – virtually disarmed in the contest for public opinion. Why not ask if US military policies are making this country less safe and more vulnerable to future attack? A compromise peace in Afghanistan with the Taliban will not be the cause of more car bombs in New York – that has already occurred in response to drone attacks on Pakistan. But a compromise peace might allow Obama to focus the nation’s limited resources on preventing attacks by Al Qaeda cells while shifting American diplomacy away from supporting the Israeli occupation and propping up the Arab dictatorships which are the true sources of Muslim grievance. And if the US wants to calm Pakistan, it could begin by offering to restart negotiations over Kashmir instead of protecting the Indian state as a western proxy in the region. Those would be mighty diplomatic lifts for the US to undertake.
But Obama and his advisers are unlikely to venture where even progressive media commentators do not lead. It is telling that Maddow is less bold today on Afghanistan than Cronkite was on Vietnam 32 years ago, though the CBS anchor was by far the more mainstream of the two.