Where Is the Afghanistan Debate?
When public support slips, TV packs in war boosters
With new polls showing the American public becoming increasingly critical of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the Sunday morning network talkshows turned primarily to Pentagon officials and war boosters to discuss the issue, continuing the media marginalization of critics of the escalation of the war (Extra!, 4/09).
The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll (8/13-17/09) found that 51 percent of respondents believe the war is not worth fighting--the first time that position has received majority support. Just 24 percent supported sending more troops to Afghanistan, while 45 percent think the level of troops should be decreased.
As the New York Times reported (8/24/09): "The White House has been concerned about declining support for the war among the American public. After recent polls illustrating the decline, [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Admiral [Mike] Mullen and Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired general who is the ambassador to Afghanistan, went on Sunday talkshows to discuss the direction of the mission." Indeed, this pair of officials appeared the same morning (8/23/09) on both NBC's Meet the Press and CNN's State of the Union.
State of the Union host John King also presented "three U.S. senators from across the ideological spectrum [to] debate whether to send more troops to Afghanistan." The views expressed by Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, independent Joe Lieberman and Democrat Benjamin Cardin, though, could hardly be considered a debate: Lugar said that "everyone waits for General McChrystal to give, really, the outline of where we're headed, how many troops or whatever else is going to be required" while Cardin declared that "we need to make sure that Afghanistan and, quite frankly, the border with Pakistan is not a safe haven for terrorists," and "we now need to know what do we need to do as far as resources to accomplish that mission."
Lieberman, declaring that "we can't let the Taliban come back," suggested that the U.S. "give our troops and our civilians there...the support that they need as quickly as we can get it to them." ("Don't dribble it out, don't go for incrementalism," Lieberman warned.) Lugar concluded the segment by predicting that the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan would last "many, many years beyond" President Barack Obama's current term.
On ABC's This Week, Sen. John McCain gave his appraisal of Obama's conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (As the ABC web headline put it, "McCain: Obama Doing What I Would Do on Battlefields.") Host George Stephanopoulos asked McCain about the public's attitude towards the war: "The majority now say that it's not worth fighting. Two to one, they don't want more troops. The clock is ticking both with the public and Congress. You say 12 to 18 months. What do we need to see in 12 to 18 months to make sure the public and the Congress stay behind this war?" Note that the issue for the host is shaping public opinion to conform to the policy, rather than asking whether the policy should change in response to public opinion.
On the show's roundtable, conservative columnist George Will was the most forceful critic of the war (saying, "I think the American people are right about this"), while liberals Paul Krugman and Robert Reich downplayed both the political significance of the war and the importance of recent polls; Krugman said that he would like to ask Americans who are surveyed to find Afghanistan on a map.
CBS's Face the Nation did not feature a discussion of Afghanistan this week. Last week (8/16/09), the program featured former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, neither of whom seemed to have a strong opinion about the war.
It makes sense that government officials would try to reverse the trend of declining public support for the war by going on TV. But why are the networks allowing themselves to be used this way? Why is the corporate media response to rising dissatisfaction with the Afghanistan War not an effort to include that point of view in the discussion, but to bring on more officials to explain to the public why their opinions are wrong?
ACTION: Encourage the Sunday morning shows to acknowledge the public's views on Afghanistan by including peace advocates and other critics of the escalation of the war as guests on their programs.
NBC's Meet the Press
ABC's This Week with George Stephanopolous
CNN's State of the Union
CBS's Face the Nation
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