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Washington Post, NPR Manufacture “European” Opposition to Afghanistan Withdrawal
Right-wingers worried about immigration and weapons-contractor-funded think tanks are held up as the entirety of European opinion.
A classic genre of foreign policy writing is the NATO Diplomatic Row piece. Peppered with pathologically unexamined—and vaguely racist—cliches about “shared Western values,” “the world stage,” “frayed alliances,” and “fragile democracies,” the genre is a great vehicle to smuggle in contestable ideological premises about the moral utility of massive transatlantic military spending, sanctions and structural adjustment programs targeting poor countries, and the urgent need for alleged humanitarian missions abroad.
Over the past two weeks, after it became increasingly clear that Biden was actually going to pull out the U.S. military’s ground force from Afghanistan (make no mistake, violence from above via drones strike will still very much be on the menu), U.S. and British media engaged in a collective meltdown, with varying degrees of moral preening and bad-faith process criticism. It was inevitable, then, that many a NATO Diplomatic Row piece would be birthed from this milt of elite despair. An old story needed a fresh angle, and the NATO-aligned think tanks would be happy to help provide one.
We will examine two textbook examples of how the consensus—that “Europe” is upset the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan—is manufactured: The first is Eleanor Beardsley in NPR, the second is Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post. There are far more examples, but in the interest of word count we’ll home in on these two.
First, NPR’s “European Leaders Have Tense Reactions To U.S.-Afghanistan Conflict” from August 28.
Here we are told “European leaders” are biting their tongues but, behind closed doors, “are angry over how the U.S. is departing Afghanistan, a country in which they had a common mission for 20 years.”
What is “many”? Three. We hear “anger” from three leaders—Boris Johnson of the UK, Angela Merkel of Germany, and Emmanuel Macron of France. Johnson and Merkel are of conservative parties and Macron, though nominally liberal, is staunchly pro-capitalist, pro-austerity, has bombed various parts of north Africa several times, attempted to outlaw nonviolent Palestinian protests, and has a record of xenophobic policies. A quintessential neoliberal, he is conservative in all but name.
The sources providing commentary for NPR: Lema Salah, a researcher at the Netherlands Defence Academy; Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund; Romain Malejacq, an assistant professor at Radboud University; and Simon Haselock, former member of Britain's Royal Marines. All present the exact same view: the withdrawal is bad.
Aside from Malejacq, who appears to be an academic who’s done consulting in Afghanistan and just wants to remain in Afghanistan, all the sources are military-aligned. The Netherlands Defence Academy is a military-funded outfit. The German Marshall Fund is a pro-NATO think tank funded by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, U.S. Department of State, and NATO. And a former marine is, well, a former marine.
Were there simply no “European” voices NPR could find that support the withdrawal? Surely there has to be one out of the 750 million Europeans who thinks the withdrawal is a good idea—especially since polling over the years shows the majority of Europeans support ending their occupation of Afghanistan. Recent polls are difficult to come by, but the last major one in 2012, commissioned by the German Marshall Fund itself, found opposition to the Afghanistan war in Europe was overwhelming—53 percent of Europeans supported an immediate withdrawal, with 75 percent backing “either withdrawal or an immediate troop reduction.” Has there been a radical shift towards supporting the occupation the Post and NPR are privy to they’re just not telling us about?
Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor did roughly the same schtick as NPR in his piece, “As U.S. leaves Afghanistan, Europe sours on Biden,” from Aug 31. Only quoting pro-war European voices (minus a token mealy mouthed skeptic, American Steven Walt, at the very end), he asserts a “European” consensus based on these four sources, then moving on. In addition to conservatives Johnson and Merkel, Tharoor cites former conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and conservative Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet of Germany.
The non-politician Europeans we hear from? Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, and Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council, who insisted that the pullout created “real trauma in Berlin and London.”
The Brookings Institution is funded by a who’s who of American corporations, weapons contractors like Raytheon and Boeing, the United Arab Emirates, the CIA, U.S. State Department, U.S. Department of the Air Force, and U.S. Department of the Army. The Atlantic Council, which is explicitly a pro-NATO think tank, is funded by NATO, the Pentagon, British Foreign Office, Goldman Sachs, weapons contractors Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. military and State Department.
Again, one is compelled to ask: Could Tharoor simply not find any Europeans who approved of the withdrawal? Surely there has to be at least one on the entire continent? Surely there exists an opinion from Europeans that is not from a right-winger or someone on the payroll of U.S.-military-funded organizations?
In an effort to contrive a great rift between Biden and the supposed European street, NPR, the Washington Post, and at least half a dozen other outlets sought—and no doubt eagerly received—comment from defense-contractor-funded, pro-NATO think tanks and held up these voices as the whole of the continent’s will.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room not mentioned in either of these pieces, beyond a passing hand-wave by Tharoor, is that when Macron, Johnson, and Merkel talk about “security” issues, this is liberal EU code for “more Muslim immigrants presents political problems for me.” NPR doesn’t even mention the immigration issue, and the Post barely notes it at all. But it’s a central reason why these leaders are upset, based on their own words.
Johnson has made some liberal statements about taking in refugees but, his offer of sanctuary to 5,000 (potentially up to 20,000 if certain conditions are met) has been called “inhumane.” Merkel and much of the EU have punted on the issue: As BBC Brussels Correspondent Nick Beake detailed today, “Mainstream [EU] politicians are weary of another surge in support for anti-migrant parties. Germany goes to the polls in a month & today its interior minister said the EU should avoid setting a target for the number of Afghans to be resettled, arguing it would serve as a magnet.”
Immediately, when it became clear Kabul would fall, Macron’s first public action was a declaration that Afghanistan must not be “sanctuary of terrorism.” and that it was his duty to “protect” France from immigration flows. A Guardian roundup accused him of “pandering to the far right.”
Rather than their alleged high-minded concern for women’s rights or NATO’s global image or whatever lofty think tank reason we are given, these reporters have a responsibility—given Europe’s long history and anti-Muslim xenophobia—to look beyond the superficial reasons provided and examine possible ulterior motives. What’s clear from reading these statements from “European leaders” is that, more than anything, they’re upset about having to help carry the sudden “burden” of thousands of Afghan refugees. But this doesn’t play well to transatlantic liberals, so instead we are only given more feel-good excuses about a lack of communication and global standing.
Depending on how one defines it, there are roughly 44 countries in “Europe.” These articles allegedly detailing how “Europe” reacted to the withdrawal only spoke to leaders of three—France, Germany, and the UK. The largest and most powerful, no doubt, but also ones run by conservative leaders heavily invested in appeasing their anti-immigrant bases and maintaining the primacy of NATO. But what of the other 41 or so countries in Europe? What does Spain think of the withdrawal? Greece? Italy? Belgium? Hungary? What of the liberals and leftists who support the withdrawal? What of the 50 to 70 percent of Europeans who support the withdrawal?
It’s not clear. No effort is made by either Beardsley or Tharoor to gather any meaningful consensus of non-conservative leaders, much less that of actual European citizens. No polling data, no seeking out left-wing voices, or even non-militaristic liberal voices.
Though one is led to believe otherwise in American media, the problem, at its core, is that NATO is not a diplomatic forum or women’s rights NGO—it’s a military alliance. Thus, voices with a stake in this military alliance, and voices funded by this military alliance—as well as transatlantic logistics suppliers, banks, and defense and surveillance corporations—are necessarily going to be upset at anything that undermines the usefulness of their gravy train. Of course, someone from a NATO-aligned think tank, explicitly created to maintain public support for NATO, is going to be upset when NATO loses one of its most profitable forward positions. What else are these fellows supposed to say? “The organization I’m paid to defend and promote is actually, at best, superfluous and, at worst, harmful”?
The ideological outcome, intentional or not, is to present Biden’s withdrawal as outside the mainstream. After all, if socialist-y enlightened European democracies oppose exiting Afghanistan, doesn’t this make Biden a far-left ideologue? But the exit is not outside the mainstream: The withdrawal, both in the U.S. and Europe, is extremely popular with the public, and presenting some consensus view of “Europe” as opposing the end of the ground war misleads media consumers to believe otherwise.
If NPR or the Washington Post want to seek opinion from, and give voice to, Europe’s pro-military rightwing, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, journalistically. But it should be identified as such so the readers can calibrate the criticism on these terms, not have this particular point of view presented as representing “Europe” as such. Certainly, “Conservative European Leaders Have Tense Reactions To U.S.-Afghanistan Conflict” has a completely different implication than “European Leaders Have Tense Reactions To U.S.-Afghanistan Conflict.” Certainly, “As U.S. leaves Afghanistan, Rightwing Europe sours on Biden” hits different than “As U.S. leaves Afghanistan, Europe sours on Biden.” The left in Europe may be in a rough patch, but it still exists—as do NATO-skeptical views from across the political spectrum. These perspectives are as much a part of Europe as the single-minded, pro-intervention drones from the Marshall Fund, Brookings, and Atlantic Council who we hear from over and over again as a stand-in for all of “Europe.” How about, for once, we hear from skeptics of permanent occupation?