On the AfPak / Wikileaks Documents

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I have just started to look at some of these documents; more on the substance later. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder and Alexis Madrigal have immediate reactions on the military and the media-ecology implications of this development.

The interaction between "traditional" and "new" media is the most immediately arresting "process" aspect of this event. It's structurally similar in one sense to the Pentagon Papers case nearly 40 years ago. Back  then, Daniel Ellsberg worked with the New York Times to publicize the documents. Otherwise, how could he have gotten them out? This time, Wikileaks worked with the Times -- and the Guardian and Der Spiegel -- to organize, make sense of, and presumably vet the data. Wikileaks could have simply posted the raw info even without the news organizations' help. At first glance this is a very sophisticated illustration of how newly evolving media continually change the way we get information, but don't totally replace existing systems. The collaboration of three of the world's leading "traditional" news brands makes a difference in the way this news is received.

A word of historical comparison. Unlike Marc Ambinder or Alexis Madrigal, neither of whom was alive at the time, I remember when the Pentagon Papers came out. By that point American involvement in Vietnam was "ending" -- even though it would be another four years before U.S. troops left the country after the fall of Saigon, and even though many, many  American, Vietnamese, and other people were still to die in the "wind-down" phase. The major effect of the Papers was to reveal that for many years officials closest to the action had understood that the war could not really be "won," at least under the real-world political circumstances the U.S. faced. Of course the U.S. could have waged all-out unlimited war, and prevailed -- but it wasn't going to do that. Perhaps the most shocking single document in the papers was the famed "McNaughton Memo" of 1965, which assessed American reasons for staying in Vietnam this way:

1. US aims:
70%--To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).

20%--To keep SVN [South Vietnam] (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.

10%--To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. Also-To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used. Not--To "help a friend," although it would be hard to stay if asked out.

In retrospect, that seems an amazingly prescient assessment of why the U.S. stayed in Vietnam for a full decade after the memo was written. But it is not how the case for war was presented at the time.

Which brings us back to Wikileaks and AfPak. The Obama Administration policy I most disagree with was his decision late last year to double-down in Afghanistan. Although I am not an expert on Afghanistan, I opposed this choice because everything I have learned about the world makes me doubt its central logic. That logic is: if we bear down for a limited time, in a limited way, that will make enough difference that we can then begin to leave -- rather than simply preparing to leave now. At first glance, these documents cast severe doubt on the idea that staying for another 18 months -- who knows, perhaps another 18 years -- would truly "make the difference" in transforming Afghanistan.

The argument for bearing down is that the dangers of withdrawal are too great to allow any other option -- which of course was also the argument about Vietnam. As a matter of logic, we can recognize two extremes. Some causes are so vital that, even if they seem hopeless, there is no choice but to persevere. Eg: the RAF during the Battle of Britain. On the other extreme, some efforts are so hopeless that, even if they seem vital, there is no choice but to quit. Eg: the Confederacy at Appomattox, the Japanese emperor after the atomic bombs. At any point in between, it's a matter of balancing the hopes of success against the stakes. If "can we do it?" were no concern, it would obviously be better to keep the Taliban out of power and remove one possible base of Al Qaeda operation. But it's not obvious that the answer to "can we do it?" is yes. Indeed most recent news points the other way.

That's what I'll be looking for in the Wikileaks documents: evidence that the project we're now committed to in Afghanistan could ever have worked, or might still work now. And I wonder how a contemporary McNaughton would apportion the reasons for America's staying in Afghanistan.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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