Mainstream media need to stop treating Bush administration officials like Afghanistan experts

If you are going to interview them, then ask about the mistakes that doomed the war in the early 2000s

As the Taliban retakes control of Afghanistan, following the U.S. military pullout after 20 years of war, mainstream media outlets are often giving voice to figures from the George W. Bush administration — the very people who got America bogged down in an unwinnable conflict in the first place.

Early on, the Bush administration made critical errors in both the military mission and political settlement of the Afghan constitution, leaving a quagmire that was then continued through the Obama and Trump administrations. In addition, the Bush White House was determined from the beginning to use the 9/11 attacks as a pivot to invading Iraq — while it also failed to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, thus entrenching the United States deeper into a never-ending commitment.

Mainstream media coverage in the run-up to the U.S. withdrawal previously gave a favored position to the spin for a permanent military occupation. And in many of the interviews being conducted now, former members of the Bush administration are treated as experts on the current situation in Afghanistan without being taken to task for the decisions they actually made while in power.

On Sunday morning’s edition of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, co-anchor Jonathan Karl spoke with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WI), noting that she was also “a former State Department official.” But while Karl asked questions about the long U.S. commitment in the country having yielded such little positive results, and whether it could have been continued even when the American public no longer supported it, he never actually asked Cheney about her own record in foreign policy from that era in the Bush administration, during which her father also famously served as vice president.

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Citation From the August 15, 2021, edition of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos

On Sunday night’s edition of MSNBC’s American Voices with Alicia Menendez, guest anchor Anand Giridharadas interviewed MSNBC anchor and former Bush White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace. But the discussion of the war’s whole timeline seemed to treat both Wallace and the entire Bush administration as if they had been passive observers, rather than active participants and decision-makers.

Giridharadas described the failure as having “the feeling of a Greek tragedy, an inevitable outcome that finally happened.”

Wallace went on to describe how the Afghanistan conflict had become just as unmanageable as the more unpopular Iraq War — and at the same time — for “long, hard-wired historical reasons.”

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Citation From the August 15, 2021, edition of MSNBC’s American Voices with Alicia Menendez

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS (GUEST ANCHOR): The [i]Cliff’s Notes[/i] version of Afghan history would appear to be, “You’re not going to come in here, invade us, and change anything,” and there's plenty of object lessons throughout history, as some of our prior guests were talking about. What did folks believe in that moment, about why that history may not be true anymore?

NICOLLE WALLACE (MSNBC ANCHOR): You know, it’s interesting. I mean, you and I first met on the set of Morning Joe debating some of these issues almost 20 years ago. And I think if you remember, the narratives around the Bush presidency were that of the two wars the ex-President George W. Bush brought the country to, this was a less awful one, that this was a more just war after 9/11, and after the Taliban's role in giving safe haven to Osama bin Laden. But in so many ways, as early as the war in Iraq seemed to not be going the way the American people felt they could support it in a long-term way, the war in Afghanistan took the same trajectory for a lot of the long, hard-wired historical reasons you're citing.

NPR’s Morning Edition spoke Monday morning with former Bush and Trump foreign policy official John Bolton, who lambasted both former President Donald Trump for the “erroneous policy” of having negotiated with the Taliban, and President Joe Biden for “bungling” Trump’s error further. (Trump himself has been publicly castigating Biden over the pullout — even though Trump had previously agreed to a timeline for this to have happened three months earlier.)

Host Noel King highlighted Bolton’s various disagreements with Trump on pulling out from the country, as well as the war’s continued unpopularity in the United States, but she failed to ask about any decisions made during the first decade of the war under Bush.

Washington Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, who has long advocated a permanent U.S. troop presence in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, appeared Monday on Fox’s America’s Newsroom to rail against the Biden administration. (Thiessen is also a Fox News contributor.)

“Either Joe Biden completely miscalculated, in which case he’s incompetent, or he knew that this would be the result — and didn't care — in which case, he’s a horrible human being,” Thiessen declared. “In either case, the American people deserve better from their commander-in-chief. It’s just the most shocking thing I've witnessed in my career in Washington.

Fox co-anchor Dana Perino, who was also a former press secretary from the Bush administration, asked Thiessen: “I wondered about you today, Marc, in terms of — what would you say? What would you write for a president to say at this point? But I think that those comparisons are just impossible to make. You worked for a very different president.”

Of course, Perino worked for that “very different president,” too — the one who laid down the foundations for the choice between a never-ending U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, or the pullout and what would result.

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Citation From the August 16, 2021, edition of Fox News’ America’s Newsroom

Thiessen also rhetorically challenged opponents to “name me a U.S. ally anywhere in the world who could” defend themselves without American support, citing examples such as South Korea, Germany, Taiwan, and Japan.

“No U.S. ally in the world could defend itself without some level of U.S. support,” Thiessen said. “That’s why we have troops stationed in Korea, that’s why we have troops in Japan, that’s why we had troops in Germany during the Cold War, to prevent a Soviet invasion over the Fulda Gap. So all these people running around blaming the Afghan army because we abandoned them, and then saying they didn't fight, is just shameful — it’s victim-shaming.”

Thiessen had also been tweeting this argument over the weekend, positing a hypothetical scenario in which “South Korea were under this kind of sustained assault.

A crucial difference, and one that Thiessen briefly gave away, is that the U.S. has stationed troops in such places as South Korea or Germany to deter an attack by an enemy power from actually happening, such as during the Cold War or even to this day. By contrast, U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan had been engaged in an ongoing conflict for nearly 20 years — one that people like Thiessen, Cheney, and Bolton would have seemingly kept them in forever.