John Leo

The peak of quagmire journalism was famously reached on Oct. 31 in a New York Times analysis by R.W. Apple Jr. "Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past," Apple began, "the ominous word 'quagmire' has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy." It is understood in Washington that a quagmire warning by an illustrious Times heavyweight is the closest thing we have to an announcement by the Deity himself that all is lost. In plain English, the analyst was declaring that Afghanistan equals Vietnam. (The headline removed all doubt: "A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam.")

Still, Apple came in for a certain amount of rude mockery for attempting to hide his doleful beliefs behind the weasel word "haunted." William Saletan said so on, noting that "haunt, the immaculate verb" allows a reporter to depict his personal opinion as the group opinion of Washington.

A humble columnist (that would be me) made a similar point years ago in explaining how a reporter should go about bringing down a politician. You never write, "I think Senator Forbush is a lying crook." That would be crude. It implies you are out to get him. Instead, you simply type that Forbush is "plagued (or haunted) by allegations," which you are obliged by journalistic ethics to bring up and rehash until the poor fellow resigns. And if the press carries on with this sort of wartime haunting and plaguing, it may actually turn out to be conventional political wisdom. As Saletan wrote: The reason that criticisms and skepticism about the war bubble around D.C. "is that reporters raise and repeat them in a self-escalating cycle."

Some quagmires are still known to occur in the real world. But others are created and sustained in the newsroom. This occurs when wars fail to meet reporters' expectations and then fail to end on reporters' schedules.

It's possible that the United States will meet setbacks in Afghanistan. But journalists are currently so red-faced that quagmire-mongering is bound to subside. "As 'quagmires' go," The Wall Street Journal said cheerfully last week, "the one in Afghanistan is looking pretty good."

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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