These days, it seems like you need a Rosetta Stone to interpret the national security reporting in the New York Times.
A case in point is the disclosure this weekend that, in the Times writers’ words, “President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned.”
It is quickly clear that this “more expansive mission” doesn’t require more troops. It’s the same 9,800 we’ve been expecting to stay on after the drawdown and “end of combat” next month.
But it takes the writers until paragraph 7 to get to what the “more expansive mission” will be. First, they have to frame the situation by stating that Obama’s top advisors didn’t want to buy into that mission, but the military insisted.
What in the world could the military have insisted on as a mission in Afghanistan? Keep in mind that the military doesn’t decide what the mission is. We have an obedient, civilian-subordinated military, which is told by the president what the mission is. The military then executes it. The military has no opinion on what the mission “should” be; it advises the president on the feasibility of what he wants to do, and the requirements his policy will generate.
But if journalists don’t understand this – or if they have an ideological viewpoint that misconstrues the role the military actually plays in policy decisions – they can end up framing events in a bass-ackward way. So we have this tale of the military demanding to “expand” the mission in Afghanistan.
Here’s what it turns out the military wants to do:
[G]enerals both at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan urged Mr. Obama to define the mission more broadly to allow American troops to attack the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants if intelligence revealed that the extremists were threatening American forces in the country.
The generals, in other words, want to be proactive in defending their troops against terrorist threats. They don’t want to just wait – hunkered down on bases, or exposed and vulnerable while they’re out supporting the Afghan national forces – for terrorists to find American troops and attack them.
Now, in any sensible assessment of conditions for the follow-on mission in Afghanistan, it would be taken for granted that American forces should be able to attack the terrorists who threaten them. Adequate force defense is inherent in a stabilization mission like the one we will transition to, not only for the troops’ sake but for the sustainability of the mission. If we’re not prepared to give our troops the most effective defense possible, then we shouldn’t even be in Afghanistan.
The idea that it could be morally or politically defensible to order the troops to remain in Afghanistan under more vulnerable conditions is appalling. And yet the NYT presents that idea as if it stands on its own as an appropriately-scoped “mission,” and as if a cabal of obstreperous generals is making demands to expand the mission – by doing no more than insisting on an adequate force-defense posture.
Given the trend of reporting at the Times throughout the Obama administration’s tenure, I assume that the writers – Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt – are not, in fact, putting a spin of their own on this story. The article has the telltale aura of the planted leak from the administration, faithfully relayed. The story is developed in a tortured way to leave a political impression – to leave the reader confusedly thinking that a bunch of generals have gone to barking about something – rather than convey a rational narrative with a correct focus; i.e., on the requirements of force defense in a terrorist-infested neighborhood.
The troubling elements of this are two. First, NYT is willing to act as a mere repeater for administration themes. It has been doing so for nearly six years now, of course. But seeing the process in action remains jarring.
Second, the journalists have little or no ability to analyze what they’re being fed by the Obama administration on national security topics. Mazzetti and Schmitt don’t interpolate any skepticism about the administration narrative they’re regurgitating, because they don’t know enough to recognize what’s important about what the generals want. They just accept the administration’s framing of the issue without question.
That uncritical acceptance extends to the most basic definitions, like what constitutes “the mission” – something the sources for this article have defined in a non-standard way that gives advantage to their narrative. In reality, the military hasn’t proposed to “expand the mission” at all; it has proposed to ensure adequate force defense for American troops.
It is deceitful and even immoral to frame the military’s desire to defend the troops as a monkey wrench in the machinery of an otherwise elegantly narrow “mission.” If the minimum requirement for force defense is more than Obama wants to sign up for, then he needs to man up to that and rethink his overall policy; i.e., why we’re going to keep troops in Afghanistan to begin with. That’s a legitimate policy action, in fact. It’s what you do if you think force defense requirements may outweigh the requirements of the underlying mission.
Unfortunately, with an uncritical media making the Obama administration’s case for it, the public isn’t going to see a clear debate on this, or on other national security topics, any time soon.