Monday, 9 November 2009

A Cronkite moment?

The Independent’s editorial decision yesterday to call for a British Army pull-out from Afghanistan is, to use military speak, a first ‘beachhead’ in the national press for the anti-war brigade.

At present, this does not feel like a Cronkite moment, in which public opinion is turned decisively against a conflict by a trusted authority figure. Walter Cronkite’s famous declaration about Vietnam, live on CBS News (“this war is unwinnable”) was the beginning of the end for American involvement in South East Asia and prompted President Johnson to declare, “if we’ve lost Walter, we’ve lost the American public.”

The Independent does not have that sort of authority, but this is undoubtedly a key moment with the Indy tapping into an increasing public mood of disillusionment. The major political parties now have a national newspaper actively campaigning against continued involvement which will only add to the pressure on them to outline, during the coming election campaign, a coherent strategy going forward. I suspect vague declarations of “not giving in” and “seeing this through to the end” are not going to cut it anymore.

The issue now is, who will flock to the Indy’s banner? Both Labour and the Conservatives are wed to this war for different reasons. Labour, because they got us into it in the first place, and the Conservatives because the party’s history and culture will not allow them to be seen as anything less than stoically pro-war. There is enough skepticism about Project Cameron at grass roots level already without him going all pacifist.

However, I suspect the Lib Dems will be looking at this situation as an opportunity this morning. Clegg has been positioning himself as a war skeptic for some time now and I wonder whether a set of clear objectives for Afghanistan, measurable signposts for success over a 2-3 year period and even a timetable for withdrawal, would be a vote winner at the coming election. It would also give Clegg the opportunity to put the other leaders on the hook in any televised debate.

One more thought. All of this is dependent upon the current deliberations within the Obama Administration about the future direction and support for this war. By the time we reach a General Election in April or May 2010 America might be well on the road to total withdrawal hoping only for a Kissinger-inspired modern day ‘decent interval’ before Afghanistan returns completely to its centuries old lawlessness.


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