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Wikileaks and the Final Defeat of Tet

I agree with Max that the content of the leaked Afghan war documents is underwhelming. The thousands of pedestrian, narrow-scope field reports tell us nothing we didn’t already know about the overall conduct of the war or our coalition partners’ roles in it. The real story here is how accurate our view of the war in Afghanistan has been: even the failures and missteps have been chronicled with thematic, if not always specific, fidelity.

A swelling chorus of voices is pondering the roles of New and Old Media in the Wikileaks disclosure, with its effect being compared to that of Tet and the Pentagon Papers (see here, here, here, and here, for example). These analogies are overblown — wildly so, in my view — but there is nevertheless an important New/Old Media dynamic to watch in this case. The question in the coming days will be whether the Old Media — of which Time, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, et al. are members — can establish a counterfactual narrative and make it politically decisive. Will Congress, for example, consider itself bound to accept the narrative that this massive leak amounts to a set of game-changing revelations?

I predict not. Although John Kerry has stated already that the leaked documents “raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan,” my sense is that there is simply too much knowledge of that reality, both in Congress and among the public, for the political gambit to go anywhere. Much credit for that knowledge must go to New Media — independent online reporters like Michael Totten, Michael Yon, and COMMENTARY’s Max Boot, websites like Long War Journal and Small Wars Journal — which has labored to bring the war to the average reader in a level of detail unimaginable even two decades ago.

Credit is also due to both the Bush and Obama administrations and the military that has served them. In terms of “secrets” about the war, political or operational, there’s just no story in the leaked documents. We already know about all the categories of information revealed in them. They are, moreover, tactical-level reports from the field; they are not a source of “smoking-gun” policy documents like the Pentagon Papers’ infamous McNaughton Memo, which demonstrated that Johnson’s actual policy in Vietnam differed from the justification he presented to the public. (James Fallows raises this topic by referring to the McNaughton Memo in his Atlantic post, linked above.)

The severity of the leaks is related primarily to the damage they may do to our forces’ operational security in Afghanistan, and much of what is reflected about their activities is outdated now. Meanwhile, the eager hope of left-wing pundits that this leak will turn American sentiment to widespread anger and unrest is unfounded. From 1968 to 1971, Americans had few alternatives to Walter Cronkite and the New York Times. Today they have thousands. I believe the New Media will succeed in the signal task of burying Old Media’s “Tet-effect” talisman, once and for all.