War–What War?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

The anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan headed to Martha’s Vineyard this week, where President Obama is vacationing. Once again she is protesting our two wars abroad.

But Sheehan is a media has-been. ABC’s Charlie Gibson used to cover her anti-Bush rallies in Crawford, Texas. Now he says, with a sigh, of her recent anti-Obama efforts, “Enough already.”

The war in Iraq is scarcely in the news any longer, despite the fact that 141,000 American soldiers are still protecting the fragile Iraqi democracy, and 114, as of this writing, have been lost this year in that effort.

But after the success of the surge, there are far fewer American fatalities each month — eight in July, five in August. Former anti-war candidate Barack Obama is also now President and Commander-in-Chief Obama — with Democratic majorities in the Congress.

Public opinion and media attention about Iraq were always based largely on two factors that transcended whether Americans felt the removal of Saddam Hussein was wise and necessary — or misguided and wrong.

First was the perception of costs to benefits. In May 2003, after a quick, successful American invasion, a Gallup poll revealed that 79 percent of the public supported the war — despite our not finding weapons of mass destruction. But by December 2008 — more than 4,000 American fatalities later and at the end of the Bush presidency — only 34 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, still felt the war had been worth the effort.

Second was how the changing public mood affected politics. In October 2002, the Republican-controlled House and Senate, with plenty of Democratic support, voted overwhelming to authorize the Iraq war.

Congress cited 23 reasons why we should remove Saddam. The majority of these authorizations had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction.

Yet as the subsequent occupation became messy and costly, prior Democratic support evaporated. In both the presidential campaigns of 2004 and 2008, running against what was now George Bush’s war was seen as wise Democratic politics.

From all that, we can draw more conclusions about the present media silence and absence of public protests over the Iraq war. As long as Barack Obama is commander-in-chief, and as long as casualties in Iraq are down, there will be no large public protests or much news about our sizable Iraq presence. The cost and the attendant politics — not why we went there — always determined how the Iraq war was covered.

Afghanistan is more complicated. So far this year — for the first time since our 2001 removal of the Taliban from power — more Americans have been killed there (172) than in Iraq (114). The Obama administration recently sent more troops into Afghanistan to reach our highest level yet at 32,000.

Yet so far there have been none of the public protests that we used to see in connection with Iraq. Why?

Over the last few years, we have become used to the idea that Afghanistan was “quiet.” Indeed fewer were killed there in most years than in some of the bloodiest single months in Iraq.

Democrats also ran on the notion of Afghanistan as the “good war.” It was the direct payback for the Taliban’s involvement with Osama bin Laden. It garnered United Nations support. And it had been neglected by Iraq-obsessed, neo-con George Bush.

Many anti-war candidates also thought the “good” Afghan war was largely over, while the “bad” Iraq one was hopeless — already “lost” in the words of the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev.

In addition, Afghanistan — landlocked, backward, with a harsh climate and little natural wealth — was always the harder challenge for fostering constitutional government. Iraq has ports, a central location, oil riches, flat and open terrain, and an educated populace.

So now we have public confusion about both wars. George Bush’s “wrong” war is largely won and Iraq’s democracy fairly stable. But the good war in Afghanistan is becoming Barack Obama’s and heating up — more American troops, more American casualties and little political stability.

If the past is any guide to media and public reaction, some predictions seem warranted. Obama will enjoy far more patience, since the anti-war left and a liberal media will go easier on a kindred president.

Yet if casualties peak, the American people will sour on Afghanistan as they did on Iraq. Then even Obama, I think unfairly, will be blamed in the media for a war that Americans used to think — as in the case once of Iraq — was necessary and just.

And even reluctant Charlie Gibson might have to return to covering Cindy Sheehan’s latest pursuit of a beleaguered American president.

©2009 Tribune Media Services

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