The New York Times' quagmire

Now that the Taliban have been routed, what will the media fret about?

Published November 16, 2001 10:01PM (EST)

For a long, long time to come, the word "quagmire" will be associated with the New York Times' coverage of our present war in Afghanistan. This sadly onomatopoeic term has appeared in the Old Gray Lady nearly 20 times in the last 30 days, and has spread to nearly as many newspapers and magazines across the country. Its ubiquity has been tarnishing our morale like the worst of self-fulfilling prophesies, dragging us down into the drooping posture of the Yeatsian beast. We've been slouching toward Kabul, or so they've said.

But now we're dancing in its streets. It's time we shirked this gloomy posture, and stood up to claim our decidedly sure-footed victories in the supposedly unconquerable land of the now fleeing Taliban.

We've pulled off a stunning coup literally overnight, and we've done so in little more than a month of precision bombing. But, all the while, a ceaseless cacophony of negativity has been wafting from the haughtiest liberal corners of the homefront press. They just can't seem to let us enjoy our fine hour, however fleeting it may prove to be. There's always a dark side, always a catch to the small good we seem to be doing, or some hidden failure behind the Pentagon's proud dispatches.

Now that we have tangible results, the New York Times especially seems more intent than ever on plastering its pages, Oliver Stone-style, with the worst atrocities of this conflict. "See how ugly our friends are?" the pictures seem to say, as if dousing with a cold dose of aversion therapy any incipient sense of accomplishment we might be feeling. Lest we be tempted to forget, when they said quagmire, they meant a moral one. A grotesque stop-action spread of Northern Alliance troops executing a prisoner splashed angrily across the front page of the Times war section earlier this week, and it drove the point home in full color.

But, still, such worthy pictures are not worth their proverbial thousand words. We must have our tuppence from the peanut gallery as well. Take, for example, the ever smirky, ever voluble, Maureen Dowd, quick with her rapier scribble, shredding the morally compromising Allied accomplishments before the blood on them is even dry:

"Still, the rebel forces' chaotic and grisly entry into the Afghan capital, after the U.S. had ordered them to stay out, illustrated how tough it's going to be to manage our murky new deals with murky people. The color our foreign policy will be wearing this fall is gray."

In peacetime, when business was usual, Dowd was comic relief. Her mordant quips were a welcome antidote to the plague of partisanship, and the pretensions of power that are endemic to the Beltway's blood sport. She spared no one. She said what we'd all been thinking when she cringed aloud at the famous picture of erstwhile Viagra posterboy Bob Dole, lounging astride a lawn chair during a break in the 1996 campaign, his unthinkable twig and prunes threatening to plop out of his too short shorts at any moment. In 1998, she rightly called the death of feminism a mass suicide, alluding, we all knew, to Gloria Steinem's bogus defense of Clinton's errant and arrant ways with Monica and Kathleen Willey. She ripped Gore for his wooden, teleprompter personality, and W. for his frat boy braggadocio during the 2000 campaign. She roasted everyone with glee. She always had her pinching gadfly's fingers on the pulse of absurd Washington, and it was good.

But since Sept. 11, her attitudinal parade of carping verbiage has slung more mud at the war effort, foreign and domestic, than the Pashtuns do at their huts. Talk about a quagmire. It's hardly a stretch to say that columns like Dowd's are in no small part responsible for fueling the public's recent dissatisfaction with its professional opinion makers. It's been almost enough to make you think that maybe Dirty Harry had a point when he said, "Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one."

Dowd is clearly in over her head when she tries to advise the administration on military strategy. "The president should ... put down the bullhorn and tell Rummy to get moving," she recently declaimed. "We've been trying to use the Northern Alliance to lure the Taliban out of holes ... These proxies who smoke and complain more than they fight, can help. But they are not the key to victory." That was then, of course.

When she wasn't playing general, she was sweating through Vietnam flashbacks: "After one of the worst weeks in the capital's history, filled with federal confusion and deadly missteps, the question was suspended like a spore in the autumn air: Are we quagmiring ourselves again?"

Of course, we're doing nothing of the kind. But hysterical naysayers like Dowd can't seem to let that fact stand between them and another chance to jab the usurping, bumbling president who, after the recount of all recounts, turns out to have won the election fair and square; and who has moved largely unscathed through probably the most apocalyptic first 300 days that any American president has ever faced. His approval ratings are in the stratosphere, and whatever else you can say about him, he hasn't dropped the ball or run the wrong way on the field.

And there's another upside to this. In a piece by David Rohde, the Times reported that this bombing "appears, in general, to have hit its targets -- military bases and government complexes within walled compounds. There was little visible evidence today on city streets of buildings damaged by American bombing."

So why can't the rest of the booers and doubters bring themselves to praise a job at least competently if not downright well done? Is it embarrassment? Certainly they, like nearly every journalist who has written about the variegated shakedown of the last two months, must have felt compelled to venture their opinions in the dark, to take stabs at coherence in an incoherent time. Perhaps acknowledging that some or most of those hard prophesies were wrong would only more boldly underscore the insecurity under which they, and the rest of us, are laboring. It's not their job not to know. Or to admit it anyway.

Then, of course, there are the peaceniks and other "war isn't the answer" peddlers. Granting that we've, at least in part, succeeded in Afghanistan would mean accepting the value of necessary force, thereby negating their raison d'etre. Better to stay the complainant course, wait for entropy to do its inevitable work, and then chime in with a robust "I told you so."

Finally, there is purposeful kicking. No doubt for some of the upstaged anarchist crowd, who've been twiddling their thumbs enviously since Genoa, negativity is a strategy, designed precisely to weaken resolve and support for the war -- something my fellow columnist David Horowitz argued played a significant part in our longitudinal failure in Vietnam. Besides, as Osama bin Laden knows all too well, its always easier to raze than to build, to cavil than to roll up your sleeves.

Whatever the reason, the war worriers keep finding any and all excuses to malign U.S. foreign and military policies -- even when they are stunning successes. Such is the nature of the game the ruling impresario press is always playing. In one way or another, its livelihood depends on it.

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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