Our latest 'quagmire'

John Leo

11/19/2001 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
The journalism award for earliest detection of a U.S. quagmire in Afghanistan probably should go to AP reporter Kathy Gannon, filing from Pakistan only a week after the twin towers fell. "History is not encouraging," she elucidated. "Now it may be the United States' turn to try a foray into the Afghan quagmire."

Gannon's quagmire alert caught other journalists a bit behind the curve. Most were still busy interviewing former Soviet soldiers on the folly of fighting in Afghanistan, since the Afghans beat the Russians and the British and held up pretty well against Alexander the Great. But reporters are quick to detect any breakthrough, so the Q-word blossomed impressively throughout journalism until the whole crop suddenly wilted around Nov. 13.

Apparently irritated that the war hadn't been won in the first three weeks, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times took to inserting the Q-word into one column after another. In The Washington Post, James Hoagland assumed that we were already deep in the big muddy, starting an October column by arguing that "The U.S. road out of quagmire in Central Asia ultimately passes through the U.N."

Reporters even began showcasing the Q-word in conventional interviews with defeatist Russians, thus combining two promising journalistic trends. ("To think that another superpower would repeat our mistake and get into a quagmire is incredible," a Soviet officer turned novelist moaned to The Miami Herald.)

At press conferences, reporters asked quagmire questions of Donald Rumsfeld and Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf. When they did, of course, they got answers keeping the word quagmire in play. Even when the word wasn't mentioned, many reporters took the oportunity to toss it in anyway. "The precedent Rumsfeld didn't mention, of course, was the quagmire of Vietnam," wrote a reporter for the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.

The whole point of using the Q-word is obviously to suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. Even without the word, journalists couldn't resist linking the two wars over and over. "Bush has bungled the challenge," Jacob Heilbrunn opined in the Los Angeles Times. "The Vietnam syndrome has gained a new virulence." A computer search turned up 7,772 print, radio and TV references to both Vietnam and Afghanistan since Sept. 11.

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 Slate.com, 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."