No, the press hasn’t turned hawkish on Afghanistan
President Joe Biden’s handling of Afghanistan has few vocal defenders. What they lack in numbers, though, they make up for in unity of message: The press is being too hard on Biden. The president is a victim of “a press corps desperate to show they do not have a liberal bias.” It’s the “overt editorializing” from the press that has made Biden’s Afghan record unpopular — editorializing that reflects the media’s alliance with national-security hawks. On Aug. 22 and 23, White House chief of staff Ron Klain used his Twitter feed to publicize five critiques of the media’s coverage of Afghanistan.
Bad press stings more for Democratic politicians than for Republican ones. The Democrats generally have friendlier relations with reporters, who generally have views more in alignment with theirs. Harshly negative stories can feel like a disturbance in the natural order, and Democrats in politics can react to them with a sense of betrayal. What makes it worse is that Democratic politicians cannot even get much benefit from attacking the press, the way Republicans can; Democratic voters don’t think of reporters as foes the way Republican voters do.
But the theory of press bias that Biden and some of his cheerleaders have adopted is wrong. It isn’t consistently hawkish. It wasn’t in 2005-07, when seemingly every day brought grim news from Iraq. Looking further back, coverage of the Vietnam War, especially after the first few years of U.S. involvement, was hardly favorable toward military action either.
So why is Biden taking so much flak? There are at least eight better explanations than the ones coming from the White House.
First, the press is biased, not toward hawkishness per se, but toward government action to relieve visible human suffering. When it comes to domestic politics, that generally works in favor of Democrats. In foreign policy, it can work for U.S. military action or against it, depending on whether action or inaction seems to be more responsible for bloodshed and oppression. The press will therefore have a soft spot for military action if it is seen as motivated by humanitarian concerns. (Recall that in Donald Trump’s first months as president, the media — specifically images of children subject to chemical warfare — prompted him to order airstrikes in Syria.)
Second, many journalists covering Afghanistan have built relationships with Afghans who are now at grave risk from the Taliban. That circumstance, too, is pushing the coverage in a hawkish direction.
Third, Biden’s decisions have generated nearly uniform criticism from Republicans — even the ones who agree that we should be getting out of Afghanistan say he has carried out the policy badly — while a lot of Democrats, including veterans of the war such as Denver-area Rep. Jason Crow, have broken with the administration. That’s a formula for unfavorable coverage.
Fourth, Biden’s pre-withdrawal spin could hardly have aged worse. He’s now saying that of course our departure is taking place amid chaos. Back on July 8, he said, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” News stories do him a favor whenever they don’t mention this soundbite.
Fifth, the administration’s spin hasn’t gotten better. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Monday that it’s “irresponsible” to characterize Americans as “stranded” in Afghanistan. This weird semantic battle is not one the White House can win.
Sixth, the administration’s attempts to blame its predecessor for the situation undercuts its own position. When Biden’s allies say that Trump owns this debacle, they’re conceding it’s a debacle. If things were going well, they would be saying that withdrawal is a great achievement that Trump only talked about but Biden accomplished.
Seventh, Biden’s policies have put him in a box politically: He can’t even voice the lowest-common-denominator sentiment of Americans that the Taliban are murderous barbarians. His policy will be an even bigger disaster if they start taking American hostages, and he knows it. He therefore doesn’t want to provoke them, even if it disarms him rhetorically.
The eighth reason for the bad press is the most important: The news that’s being reported is just bad. Biden wouldn’t have had to send troops back to Afghanistan if it weren’t. When Republicans in Trump’s first weeks in office complained that the press was not letting him have a traditional presidential honeymoon, it rang hollow: When your national security adviser has to go after 23 days on the job, there’s no way to make it a positive story. There’s no way to make this story good either. Biden’s problem isn’t a biased press; it’s a recalcitrant reality.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.