Given the almost universal recognition that the Afghan campaign has become a bloody mess, it’s quite remarkable to revisit some of the pundits who initially sold us the war.
Some people are running around the country saying they don’t know why Australians are going to war, so let me make a few things clear. Australian military forces are joining a long-overdue fight against evil. Is that too difficult to understand?
To diminish the conflict demeans the men and women representing us. That’s why I support this endeavour and salute those involved. Now, is that clear?
As the shoutiness of those rhetorical question makes clear, that’s Piers Akerman from the Sunday Telegraph on October 21, 2001, an article that reinforces Bertrand Russell’s old saying about how anything that could be put in a nutshell should probably stay there. Like, what could possibly go wrong in a war launched with a slogan from a comic book?
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These days, even Akerman seems to have changed tune. In June 2008, for instance, he cited Francis Fukuyama’s prediction that troops might be bogged down in Afghanistan for the next decades. But was this self-criticism? No, of course not. It was, naturally, an attack upon the ALP for withdrawing from Iraq.
“Rudd is taking Australians out of a war that looks winnable [Iraq],” Akerman thundered, “and putting them in a conflict [Afghanistan] which has no apparent end in sight. Good one, Prime Minister.”
Clearly, when it comes to Labor, Akerman employs the caged-monkey technique of punditry, simply flinging faeces at a wall until something sticks. Perhaps, then, he’s not the appropriate person to read. Let’s turn instead to someone with more gravitas. They don’t come more serious than Paul Kelly, at the time The Australian’s international editor. Surely he approached the Afghan commitment with more nuance?
Not so much, no:
Can you believe Howard was ridiculed two years ago over the idea that Canberra was a US deputy sheriff?
That debate is now obsolete. Our troops will soon be in Afghanistan because of an attack on America’s way of life, a bipartisan deployment backed by the Australian people. This is because, as foreign policy guru Owen Harries argues, the motives for the attack on the US are far more about what America is than what America does.
Australians understand that this is a war about the values they share. The man in the street grasps this instinctively while the intellectuals have expended thousands of words on the opinion pages over the last month trying to deny it.
That’s from a column on October 13, 2001, in which Kelly essentially replicates Akerman’s good versus evil meme, except with slightly bigger words.
Eight years on, it’s hard to read such stuff without astonishment at its light-mindedness, the utter glibness with which supposedly serious commentators signed up to an open-ended military commitment.
Note, in particular, the contrast between garrulous anti-war academics and the sound intuitions of the “man in the street”. That was a key trope of the time, with almost every pro-war pundit adopting, to some degree or another, a swaggering anti-intellectualism that scorned argument and expertise in favour of Bush-style gut instinct and moral certainties.
As part of it, the conservative commentariat devoted itself to attacking anyone who wouldn’t sign up to the childish “9-11 has changed everything script”.
There were, you see, plenty who predicted, almost exactly, how Afghanistan would end up — and you can find most of them in a Michael Duffy piece for the Daily Telegraph on December 29, 2001.
“The time has come,” Duffy writes, “to commiserate with those pundits who forecast doom and disaster for American and Australian forces in Afghanistan.”
He goes on to attack Peter FitzSimons for fretting about distinguishing freedom fighters from terrorists in Afghanistan, a concern that seems particularly prescient now that the nice Mr Karzai has morphed into the vote-rigging despot we’re currently propping up. Duffy mocks Mike Carlton for implying that the conflict might go on for years, and for suggesting that “war from the air is of limited effect against a mobile guerrilla force” since “it is the civilians who die in large numbers”.
Eight years on, in the wake of a strike that killed perhaps a hundred civilians, Carlton sure looks silly. Phillip Adams, Robert Fisk, the LA Times, Brigadier Adrian d’Hage: they all come in for a Duffy pasting for saying things that have subsequently proved entirely correct. Compare d’Hage, for instance, warning that “the present strategy is a potential quagmire [with] echoes of Vietnam” with today’s Australian and its headline about “Barack Obama facing his own Vietnam”.
Vietnam it might be but Obama shouldn’t be facing on his own. Andrew Bolt, naturally, was entirely on the same page as Duffy: less concerned about thinking through the consequences of military intervention than scoring points about “the Jeremiah ‘experts’ who said we would be mired in the Afghanistan war for years look like being wrong again” (November 15, 2001). Again, the piece follows the same dreary script, denouncing “academics and commentators” for suggesting that “aerial bombing would never work, and our soldiers would have to fight the Taliban soldiers hand-to-hand”.
Bizarrely, when it comes to Afghanistan, it’s The Australian’s Greg Sheridan who seems, at first, to stand up quite well. On November 1, 2001, he explained:
The main purpose of getting rid of the Taliban is to produce a politically permissive environment in Afghanistan for the hunting and destruction of bin Laden.
For getting bin Laden is the key US aim, much more important than any of the other aims.
Whatever you might say about that, at least it’s less metaphysical than the war Akerman and Kelly wanted to fight. Why, Sheridan even provided criteria by which success might be judged.
“Ask yourself this question,” he wrote. “In six or nine months’ time how does the Bush presidency look if bin Laden is still at large and the al-Qaeda network still operating?”
The difficulty comes when you realise that, for Sheridan, the answer is not what you might think. For how does Bush look with bin Laden still at large?
Well, here’s Sheridan on September 14, 2006:
Let me be the first to offer a bold, revisionist view. George W. Bush may well be judged, ultimately, a great president, especially in foreign policy, especially in the war on terror.
But there’s a reason why Sheridan’s prepared to label all the Bush disasters triumphs: he enthusiastically backed every one of them. Let’s look at Afghanistan again. On December 6, 2001, Sheridan writes:
With Israel and Palestine in flames, and with the hard yards coming up in the fight for Kandahar in Afghanistan, it may seem strange to contemplate a whole new military offensive.
Yes, it did seem strange and, as the world knows now, it was strange: f-cking bonkers, in fact. But not for Sheridan, who never met a military offensive he didn’t like:
The Afghanistan success may offer a model [for the war on Iraq]. Air power alone can seldom win a war. But almost any ground force, it seems, can prevail if the US is acting as its air force. The Northern Alliance, now so militarily triumphant, looked hopelessly divided, ragtag and unreliable just a couple of months ago. US weapons and air support made all the difference.
The Bush administration has a historic chance [i.e. to invade Iraq] it will have to take.
What can you say? The politicians who followed through on this insane plan eventually had to face the electorate, which is why, in part, the Republicans are such a discredited rabble. And yet, eight years on, Sheridan’s still at his desk, still a tremendously serious commentator.
Think of a building worker whose constructions consistently fell down. He or she would be drawing dole faster than you can mouth “individual responsibility”, “industrial flexibility” or any other conservative watchword. Yet with the commentariat, it’s different.
Part bully pulpit, part sheltered workshop, punditry never apologies, never explains. If anything, our emirs of error all have higher profiles now than in 2001. You can’t turn on Insiders, that shouting match in a formaldehyde jar, without finding Akerman, Duffy, Bolt or Sheridan opining on the issues of the day. They’re on the radio, they’re on the TV, and they’re still all over the press.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.