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Overestimating What We Can Fix

       U.S. Troops on Patrol in Helmand Province, 2009

We cannot shape other states with dazzling armaments. And we were never going to have enough forces to change millions of Afghan hearts and minds.

The rapid triumph of the Taliban in all of the provinces of Afghanistan is an important reminder of the limits of American power.  If there was ever a case of national hubris, Afghanistan was it, not just for the United States, but Britain, the Soviet Union and America’s NATO allies as well. We surely did more to improve services like banking and education, helping to further enfranchise the nation’s women. Some of those gains may survive, but measuring success or failure in terms of money spent to prepare the Afghan military–President Biden’s recent measure of expected success– always seemed to be a non-starter.

What is clear is that assisting a nation to modernize in the western mold must be based more on the soft-power of building bonds predicated on civil society values than on military might. I once suggested half seriously that the Taliban might lose their woeful fundamentalism if we swamped their society with our cable television technologies and programming. Bombing Taliban staging areas has always seemed counterproductive. But who might have the time and will to fight if communication devices had more systematically bought them off with mindless distractions?  Soft power engages rather than attacks. And, yes, exporting somnambulistic media is clearly a form of cultural imperialism. But we are the unchallenged leaders in perfecting this kind of export. Just ask our Canadian neighbors.

The story that is yet to be told is how much modernization in the form of cell phones, news reporting and social media is now baked into the lives of residents in or near urban areas. These will not be easy to suppress.  The young around the capital will surely expect more than what the mostly rural and backward Taliban troops can deliver.

 

We are in charge less often than we think.

Notwithstanding the valiant members of the American military and their contractors who served and sometimes died in the region, the nation’s long-term failure in Afghanistan is a reminding that we often presume a greater sense of agency than conditions on the ground can justify. We cannot change others by outgunning them with dazzling armaments. In truth, we haven’t really haven’t been in charge in the last decade or so.

As the Vietnam experience should have taught us, we are in control of events less often than we think. That was as true as well for the British when they sought to subdue American revolutionists in the colonies. Exporting a temporary force to transform a distant population is usually a fool’s errand. George Washington’s troops that successfully attacked Hessian mercenaries in Trenton in 1776 had the greater will to succeed. They were fighting for a way of life that increasingly diverged from their counterparts living an ocean away.

Every nation wants a competent and strong military.  But they are seriously over-rated as change agents. Sadly, in most societies such as Russia, they usually function more to cow their own citizens, not insurgents somewhere else.

A Theory of the Flourishing of Ignorance

“When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”            –Alice in Wonderland

Any thoughtful person looking at our peculiar times can’t help but wonder why the willful acceptance of misinformation is so pervasive. In an era when the ease of researching anything is easy, and credible news sources are just a click away, it is a puzzle to understand why so many are flying blind with their own preferred fantasies.  Most of us know the common markers of self deception heard all around us: covid vaccines are very dangerous; “the government” is using them to take away our freedoms; progressives are Nazis or “communists;” there is a concerted “war on Christmas;” voter fraud is widespread; university teachers indoctrinate their students; and that was just a “party” in the Capitol on January 6, not an insurrection.  These kinds of fictions keep surfacing. Nearly all of these claims are provably false, using accepted means for verifying facts and applying common tests of source credibility.  How do people stay in their own bubble?

It’s Now Easy to Live in an Information Desert 

An admittedly oversimplified but compelling explanation hints at part of the cause.  In a nutshell, we no longer give sufficient time to comprehensive news sources that were common even fifteen years ago. Instead, we cherry-pick news about just a few stories, choosing sources more for conformation than information.  A result is that we are poorly informed or unaware of what the best evidence shows in a given instance.

The reason this is so easily was made clear to me on a recent trip where, for days, my only source of news was television. None of the three hotels where I stayed had a newspaper available.  And their WI-FI access was predictably spotty. Typically, even good television news shows cover only a few stories.  Frequently, as with the collapse of the condominium on Collins Avenue in South Florida, one story dominates. Cable news especially has a hard time juggling a complex news agenda, even though they have capable reporters that are ready for calls from producers that often never come. A single story formula tagged as “breaking news” seems to be a ratings winner.

A good newspaper forces closed minds to open, at least a little.

This matters, because cable and internet news has largely replaced much more diverse city newspapers that still existed until a few years ago. Newspapers carried various stories from the AP, perhaps Reuters or and AFP, as well as the paper’s local reporters and other specialized news services.  Even a middling city paper offered a daily window on the world.  And a very good one, like the New York Times, forces closed minds to open.  For example, on the day I started writing this, just the first page of the Times featured 18 different news items, including a photo story of an ICU staff trying out a new treatment to save a dying covid patient. The image of medical staff hovering over a patient suggested a valiant effort to find a medical off-ramp just short of death. True, readers still chose what they wanted to read. But its hard to miss conclusive and myth-busing headlines.  What would that front-page picture say to an anti-vaxxer?

In addition, news consumers are not tied to the linear and and narrower stories of cable and broadcast news outlets. Video edits for the viewer, one story doled out at a time at the pathetic oral rate of about 200 words a minute. By contrast, print lets the reader decide from a much broader palette of stories. In addition, Americans were once better informed partly because news services and many newspapers had a financial interest in doing straight news.  Commentary may work for the increasing tribal cable networks, but not for a news service like the Associated Press, which needs neutrality to satisfy its very different subscribers.

Misinformation by the Truckload

It’s now an old and sad story that news readership is on life support.  Some papers have survived, but with far fewer reporters.  Whether it is the Allentown Daily Call or the New York Daily News, staffs that remain now sit in a sea of empty desks.  The rationale of the earnings-driven owners is that younger Americans aren’t newspaper readers, which is sadly true. But it is a mistake to assume that younger Americans have thrown in the towel on credible news stories.  And yet the major internet giants like Google aren’t much help. They aren’t journalists, and they aren’t very good at aggregating stories for the collective good. Their selections are mostly governed by algorithms rather than solid reporting.  In truth, neither CNN’s Jeff Zucker or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would cut it in the journalistic worlds once occupied by Fred Friendly, David Halberstam, Janet Malcolm, David Carr or Ben Bradlee.  These latter-day giants would have seen through the charade of one-note news, as well as the price it exacts from an increasingly distracted public.