Frank Rich often gets it right, as he does in today’s column on the Afghan War and the comparison between the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghan War Diaries. His zingers, however, can derail an entire column. (Unlike, say, David Brooks or Ross Douthat, whose zingers make up their columns.) First, what Rich gets right.
Although written as letters from the front rather than as considered history, the Afghan War diaries are not old news. They confirm through firsthand sources some of what we already knew. In the old days, a story didn’t warrant publication unless it could be confirmed, corroborated, a tradition that Andrew Breitbart and Fox Noise are doing their best to gut. And although often poorly written in jargon, as Rich notes, the diary items have much to say. In common with the Pentagon Papers, they come at a time when the public has given up on the purposes of the war and the president’s running of it.
Most importantly, they disclose sytematic government lies about how well the war has gone. The president and his advisers already know this information, the Afghans already know much of it; our NATO allies already know much of it and are getting out. It’s the American public that either hasn’t seen this material or seen it in context. To the extent these logs correct that, they imperil political will for another losing war in Afghanistan more than they threaten any other interest.
Here’s an example, however, of where Mr. Rich goes off the rails, seemingly on tangential issues and seemingly owing to the Times’ demand that if a commentator finds fault, he must find it on the left and right, and deem those two imposters just the same. In getting this wrong, he illustrates why WikiLeaks’ work and responsible blogs have become so important:
The public’s reaction to the Afghanistan war logs has largely been a shrug — and not just because they shared their Times front page with an article about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. President Obama is, to put it mildly, no Nixon, and his no-drama reaction to the leaks robbed their publication of the constitutional cliffhanger of their historical antecedent.
If the American public’s reaction to the Afghan War diaries is apathy, it is due, in part, to the Times’ choice to play down its coverage. It is due to the Times’ decision largely to ignore evidence that civilian casualties are more brutal, more frequent and more commonplace than the government admits.
If the diaries include elements of "the constitutional cliffhanger," I think they do, that ought to be the Times lede. Failing to cover it because this president shows more restraint than Mr. Nixon is no excuse. The diaries have constitutional import not because Mr. Obama has formed his own White House plumbers – he needn’t, he can achieve the same effect with the Patriot [sic] Act and a few national security letters – but because they disclose serial lying.
As a further aside, Mr. Rich says that Mr. Obama is no Nixon. True, and neither is he George Bush, not in his intelligence, thought, speech, or depth. But he adheres to or expands upon many of George Bush’s worst legal, military and surveillance excesses. Mr. Rich continues with his most pungent mischaracterization:
Another factor in the logs’ shortfall as public spectacle is the fractionalization of the news media, to the point where even a stunt packaged as “news” can trump journalistic enterprise. (Witness how the bogus Shirley Sherrod video upstaged The Washington Post’s blockbuster investigation of the American intelligence bureaucracy two weeks ago.)
One would think that to qualify as news, an event had to be important, not be a spectacle. And the public abuse of Shirley Sherrod did not happen owing to the "fractionalization" of the news media (a euphemism for blogs) or to the anonymous bloggers that CNN screamed about. Mr. Breitbart blogs under his own name; his story took off via Fox and the MSM. No, l’Affaire Sherrod was an outgrowth of the power of the Right to manufacture propaganda and to publish it as if it were news across the MSM. (Fox, despite its claim of being "fair and balanced", is already on record as claiming that it can lie with impunity to pursue its corporate goals.)
The public abuse of Ms. Sherrod did not do more damage because she fought back, as she has her whole life, constructively and with a gusto rarely seen in this administration. Breitbart and his backers’ campaign of abuse also failed to do more harm because of the growing power of responsible blogs to correct the facts, and misinterpretations or lies about them, in the MSM and on other blogs. That’s also true about the Afghan War and about the import of the Afghan War Logs, the latter success helped by how much better the UK Guardian and der Spiegel covered the diaries than did Mr. Rich’s New York Times. Fortunately, that coverage includes commentary by Mr. Rich, who gets the last word:
As the president conducts his scheduled reappraisal of his war policy this December, a re-examination of 1971 might lead him to question his own certitude of what he is fond of calling “the long view.” The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1971 Pentagon Papers coup. But another of the Pulitzers that year went to the columnist Jack Anderson, who also earned Nixon’s ire by mining other leaks to expose the White House’s tilt to Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani War. The one thing no one imagined back then was that four decades later it would be South Asia, not Southeast Asia, that would still be beckoning America into a quagmire.
Agreed, but I’d be careful with that phrase, "No one could have imagined…."