New York/DC media diligently did the GOP’s bidding by omitting key context in its rush to pin the blame for a 20-year, extraordinarily complex and heartbreaking military and foreign policy failure on a single man who took office just seven months ago.
August 16, 2021

Published with permission of PRESS RUN, Eric Boehlert’s must-read media newsletter. Subscribe here.

Treating the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan’s capitol over the weekend as a shocking event in the wake of U.S. troops withdrawing from the war-torn country, the press eagerly jumped into the blame game. In the process, they diligently did the GOP’s bidding by omitting key context in its rush to pin the blame for a 20-year, extraordinarily complex and heartbreaking military and foreign policy failure on a single man who took office just seven months ago.

Turning over their platforms to partisan Republicans and pro-war military experts, the media seemed eager to portray President Joe Biden as one being swallowed up in “crisis,” even as his call to withdraw troops has drawn overwhelming, bipartisan support at home.

Axios laid it on thick. Doubling as a GOP springboard, the news outlet made sweeping factual declarations in its news coverage: “Rarely has an American president's predictions been so wrong, so fast, so convincingly as Biden on Afghanistan.”

Raise your hand if you remember the predictions President George W. Bush made about invading Iraq, long before the U.S. spent $2 trillion and more than 500,000 people died.

A reporter for ABC News typed up GOP talking points on Twitter when he posted a photo of Taliban leaders seizing control of Kabul: “The Biden White House will have to contend with images like this every single day for the foreseeable future.”

CNN sounded identical to Fox News when it announced the troop withdrawal threatened to “stain” Biden’s entire “legacy,” while Time was sure the Afghanistan event “could alter his presidency.”

“Biden’s Betrayal of Afghans Will Live in Infamy,” The Atlantic’s George Packer declared, without detailing what steps could have been taken to stop the Taliban from retaking control of the country.

The Washington Post editorial board, which in 2002 and 2003 published nearly 30 endorsements advocating for the invasion of Iraq, howled that the troop withdrawal had been “precipitous.”

That drew a sharp rebuke from Rajan Menon, a professor of international relations at the Powell School, City College of New York:

Precipitous? Is this really an accurate characterization of a military campaign that has lasted close to 20 years and that cost close to $90 billion just to train the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces — and almost $2.3 trillion if all other costs are added in, including $815.7 billion in war-related and reconstruction expenses?

A large chunk of Sunday’s coverage simply consisted of journalists recording Republicans’ completely predictable attacks on Biden. “Republican lawmakers are denouncing President Biden's admin. for the Taliban's aggressive takeover of Afghanistan,” NBC News excitedly announced on Twitter. What Biden’s Republican critics would do in Afghanistan in terms of ending the United States’ presence was never addressed, nor was any historical context offered.

In truth, the Republican policy is to leave U.S. troops there forever and spend untold billions in the process. Yet the only Republican perspective journalists focused on in recent days was that Republicans were very mad at Biden. (Yes, many of them were stalwart supporters of the Iraq War and stood by Bush’s botched handling of the war for years.)

When Biden announced earlier this year that all U.S. troops were coming home from Afghanistan, 70 percent of Americans supported the move, including 56 percent support from Republicans.

Would those polling results be different today, given the collapse of Kabul and the Taliban’s newfound control of Afghanistan? It’s possible. But after the U.S. fought a losing war there for two decades, my guess is that most Americans will not swing their positions and urgently demand that U.S. forces return to mountainous fighting.

The images coming out of Afghanistan are disturbing and there’s plenty of blame to go around. “Biden fumbled the exit. Trump put him in this situation. Obama doubled down when we should have left a decade ago. Bush neglected the narrow mission to focus on Iraq,” tweeted Brandon Friedman, an Army veteran who fought in Afghanistan and who later served in the Obama administration. “Afghanistan has been a string of predictable failures. Blaming Biden for the outcome is patently absurd.”

The public badly wants to end the Forever War and Biden’s in the process of doing that. Nobody thought the exit would be orderly or easy. And there’s no question Afghanistan’s security collapse, which unfolded with lightning speed, caught the administration unprepared. But it’s likely that the breakdown was going to happen regardless of when the withdrawal took place. Meaning, Biden faced a clear choice: Withdraw the troops and watch the Taliban eventually take over, or become the fourth U.S. president to commit to keeping our troops there forever.

Note that Trump left Biden with an awful deal when in 2020 he negotiated a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which emboldened the Taliban; a complete U.S. troop withdrawal that was set to happen in May. Biden could have essentially ignored Trump’s plan. But it’s not as if keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan would have guaranteed peace and stability.

Here’s what Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group, told Bloomberg in May: “If the Biden administration ignores the deadline set down in the U.S.-Taliban agreement without discussing and clearing a delay with the insurgents, the Taliban will almost certainly respond by escalating their use of force -- either via attacks on population centers, facilities housing international troops or both.”

In essence, Biden came to view Afghanistan as a lost cause militarily, and decided it was time to withdraw. Biden didn’t start the war or shepherd it for two decades. And what’s unfolding in Afghanistan today is not his doing alone.


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