Obama-speak and the New York Times

Recent reporting by the New York Times has helped create the idea that Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan equals an exit strategy. My observation is based on a review of New York Times articles that ran just before and just after Obama’s December 1st address at the West Point military academy.

Beginning in reverse, the December 6th Sunday edition of the New York Times ran a story entitled “How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan.” The article chronicles Obama’s rigorous decision-making process about the Afghanistan strategy. The story is replete with inner circle debates, discussions about the estimated one-trillion dollar cost, statements by Axlerod, Clinton, Gates, Biden, and McChrystal, and somber reflections over the fallen servicemen and women. Readers are left with an image of Obama as the anti-Bush: a president who seeks inclusive discussion about the toughest decisions while also taking complete responsibility for the final say. There’s even reference to a book about the Vietnam War that was required reading within the inner circle. It would be tough for any American not to appreciate this image of Obama. Is this not the president we have been waiting for after eight years of Bush’s cowboy diplomacy?

But scratch below the surface and you begin to realize that the Times article is justifying Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. By explaining the long, tedious decision process the article implies that Obama has in fact made the best decision possible. Within the context of this article, a complicated and drawn out decision equals a good decision. This does make sense since most good decisions do take time. But the article never addresses some of the underlying assumptions about the war—that it is a just war; that Afghanistan is in fact the heart of terrorism; that al Qaeda still poses an impending threat; that president Hamid Karzai actually seeks a legitimate government; that this war is winnable; and that an immediate withdraw is neither feasible nor sensible. While the article discusses the debates over how to handle the war, it ignores any opposition to the war itself. It provides three scant sentences toward the end, which read: “…Mr. Obama met with Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker and a critic of the Afghan war. The president outlined his plans for the buildup without disclosing specific numbers. Ms. Pelosi was unenthusiastic and pointedly told the president that he could not rely on Democrats alone to pass financing for the war.” The article never addresses why Nancy Pelosi—or anyone else—opposes the war.

This particular article is only one piece to a larger puzzle. Other articles earlier in the week set the stage for Obama’s “escalation equals exit” deception.

For instance, on Monday, November 30th, the day before Obama’s speech, the Times’ lead article was “Obama’s Speech on Afghanistan to Envision Exit.” Because I receive the Times via email, there is always a one sentence-tagline to every article. The tagline to this article read: “President Obama plans to lay out a timetable for U.S. involvement in the Afghan war when he announces his decision this week to send more forces, officials said.” The word “timetable” suggests an exit strategy, which suggests that we are getting ready to leave. But that’s wrong. We are escalating not leaving.

On Tuesday, December 1st, the day of the speech, the Times’ lead article was “Obama Issues Order for More Troops in Afghanistan.” Overall, I see no problem with the headline, tagline, or article; it was simply an overview of Obama’s forthcoming speech.

On Wednesday, December 2nd, the day after the speech, the Times’ lead story was “Obama Adds Troops, but maps Exit Strategy.” The one sentence-tagline read: “President Obama said he would begin to draw U.S. forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011, even after sending some 30,000 more troops by mid-2010.” This article, like Obama’s speech, couched the troop buildup in terms of an exit strategy.

On Thursday, December 3rd, the Times ran a front page story entitled “Afghanistan and Pakistan Rattled by a Plan for Drawdown.” The one sentence tagline read: “Diplomats scrambled to reassure the nations at the center of President Obama’s war strategy that the U.S. would not cut and run.” This emphasis on “cutting and running” makes people believe that we are actually in the process of leaving Afghanistan. The supposed anxiety of these nations intensifies this belief. A reader’s subconscious mind might think, for instance, that since these countries are so worried, we must in fact be getting ready to withdraw from Afghanistan.

I am not prepared to accuse the New York Times or the Obama administration of egregious propaganda. There’s simply not enough evidence to make the case. But I do argue that this is a textbook example of doublespeak. The most famous example of doublespeak comes from George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984. Orwell’s novel depicts a totalitarian regime that inculcates its citizens with a three-pronged slogan: War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and Freedom is Slavery. Such doublespeak inverts commonplace understandings, thereby tricking citizens to believe that up is down, black is white, and bad is good. In our current case, we are led to believe that more troops are fewer troops, more war is no war, and escalation is an exit.

I am not sure why the Times would use such doublespeak. Perhaps the newspaper is aloof to its own double-sided discourse. Perhaps it actually thinks that this is sound reporting. Perhaps it is consciously trying to maintain Obama’s image as the next great savior akin to JFK and Dr. King. Perhaps it is in bed with the Obama administration. I really don’t know. But the intentions are less important than the effects: such reporting helps set conditions for the delusional belief that we are preparing to leave Afghanistan. The only problem is that the war is intensifying, not ending.

Such delusions are further highlighted by recent comments by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. He appeared on ABC’s This Week on December 6th. In response to a John McCain criticism, Gates responded with, “I don’t consider this an exit strategy, and I try to avoid using that term. I think … this is a transition … it will be the same kind of gradual, conditions-based transition—province by province, district by district—that we saw in Iraq.”

These comments are quite perplexing since we’re still in Iraq and “residual forces” will remain there even after the “combat troop drawdown” of August, 2010. But keep in mind that more than 700 U.S. military bases exist in 63 countries. A complete and total withdraw from either Iraq or Afghanistan is highly unlikely. There may be a transition, but it will be a transition from complete and total war to a permanent and “friendly presence.” This neo-colonialism is no longer orchestrated by Junior Bush, Senior Bush, Ronald Reagan, or even the supposed liberal, Bill Clinton. It’s being orchestrated by Barack Obama.

Keep in mind, too, that Obama campaigned on escalating the Afghanistan war. He told us what he was going to do (more or less) and now he’s doing it. There should be no surprise. But many Obama voters (including myself) probably didn’t anticipate the doublespeak. We can use this as a moment of insight: Obama is not the great ambassador of hope and change; instead, he’s a politician invested in and supported by a wider system of special interests. Unfortunately, the interests of everyday people are often ignored by that system.

Some Obama supporters may get defensive, arguing that there is no doublespeak. But would these same people defend George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech two months into the Iraq war? I doubt it. Likewise, a December 10th New York Times/CBS poll reveals that 51% of Americans support Obama’s plan to send more troops. But what percentage would support this action if Bush was still president? I can almost guarantee that the percentage would be lower. It is wrong if Bush does it but okay if Obama does it? That makes no sense. Too many folks are still high on the Obamania, and that’s the problem.

The campaign is over and Obama’s words are now actions. When he says would should escalate the war, it happens. If we don’t like it, then we must stop apologizing for his decisions and start pressuring him. That’s what democracy is all about. I fully admit that I voted for Obama and hope he does well since he moves this country closer—but not nearly close enough—toward the world that I desire. But so far he is failing. Bailouts for banks rather than people; a gutless healthcare bill; and now an escalation of war. Voting for someone is not an indefinite approval for every action and policy. I fervently oppose Obama’s escalation and believe that the New York Times is complicit in the recent Obama-speak. If I am wrong, then fine. But if I am correct, then it’s time to call Obama out and hold his feet to the fire. Let’s get past the doublespeak and start acknowledging that Obama is intensifying the violence and horror of war.

Jason Del Gandio is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008) and an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University in Philadelphia. He can be reached at: rhetoric4radicals@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason, or visit Jason's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. DavidG. said on December 14th, 2009 at 5:38pm #

    Having watched Obama receive the Nobel Peace Prize while he argued for the morality of his ‘just’ war in Afghanistan convinces me that Obama has a snake’s tongue.

    Double-speak has reached a new height (or is is depth?) compliments of Obama. When he aids or helps Israel to bomb Iran I suppose that will be another ‘just’ action that justifies his ‘peace’ award!

    Stop the world! I want to get off.

  2. russell olausen said on December 14th, 2009 at 11:19pm #

    N.Y. Times is Rag. There, it’s done.