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When a Trillion Dollars' Worth of Bombs Is Not Enough

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles drop 2,000-pound bombs in Afghanistan in 2009. (DVIDSHUB / CC BY 2.0)

For the New York Times, the US is always lagging behind the Russian menace. Previously, the Times has told us how America was losing the “scramble for the Arctic” (8/30/15) and falling behind in election-meddling (3/4/18). Now it’s in the realms of cyber and nuclear war that the Times sees dangerous gaps.

In “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts Meets an American Strategic Void” (3/5/18), reporters David Sanger and William Broad passed along the worries of Washington—as expressed by a few military higher-ups, some guy from the arms industry mouthpiece known as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a disembodied “The United States”—that Trump didn’t have a coherent strategy for dealing with cyber and nuclear threats from Russia. The front-page subhead warned, “Russia has ramped up its arsenal, US has done little in response.”

So what does a “little” response look like? Since taking office, the Trump administration and Congress—citing the Russian challenge as one of their major rationales—have increased the military budget by about $80 billion, or roughly 13 percent, the largest increase since the aftermath of 9/11, and 70 percent greater than the entire Russian military budget of $47 billion. (Note that in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Soviet military budget was bigger in real termsthan that of the United States—and yet the USSR still managed to lose the Cold War.)

Additionally, Trump has reportedly asked for a “black budget” of over $80 billion for covert operations ($30 billion more than previous reports), and pledged more than $1.2 trillion to building up the United States’ nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years, $200 billion more than Obama asked Congress for when he announced the plan two years ago.

And Trump has, again, asked to increase the military budget by even more—to $716 billion—for 2019. All this, of course, is omitted from Sanger and Broad’s piece, which largely paints the United States as bumbling around without any idea how to combat the always-one-step-ahead-of-us Russians.

While the framing paints an image of the US doing nothing at all, the article’s text is a little less daft, focusing primarily on a “strategic void,” or what some “experts” believe is a lack of “strategy.” Although there’s no indication the US military has ceased to carry out strategic objectives laid out before Trump took office, one can grant this vague premise (it’s difficult to know what degree of “strategic” PowerPoint presentations would satisfy Sanger and Broad), but omitting the unprecedented amounts of money and resources Trump has spent on the military under the guise of combating Russia—to say nothing of his sending “lethal aid” to Ukraine (something Obama long declined to do)—is a massive omission.

As usual, the United States, when it’s not being painted as bumbling, is presented as simply responding to threats in a defensive manner:

And in the nuclear sphere, the Trump administration has yet to offer a strategy to contain or deter Russia beyond simply matching the weapons buildup.

Here again, the US only responds to threats, it never instigates them; the US is only “matching [Russia’s] weapons buildup,” not inciting one. The fact that the US’s most recent nuclear “revamp” began in earnest in 2014—long before Trump announced his campaign, much less moved into the White House—is not mentioned.

Later on, apparently unable to find a specific party or person to quote, Sanger and Board paraphrase the general impression of the entire US government (emphasis added):

By comparison, the United States is still uncertain how to make use of its cyberweapons after spending billions of dollars to build an arsenal. It is concerned that the Russians—along with the Chinese, the Iranians and the North Koreans—could easily retaliate against any attack, striking American banks, utilities, stock markets and communications networks.

Somehow the whole of the US government is “uncertain” how to make use of all their fancy new toys, and is “concerned” that Russia and other Bad Guys could harm us. Who, exactly, feels this way? The Times doesn’t narrow it down beyond “the United States.”

The effect of the article—by intent or accident—is to justify even more military spending, as Trump and Congress plan yet another massive military increase for 2019. And this is where the rub comes, around paragraph 16:

“We must no longer think in terms of building just ‘limited’ missile defense capabilities,” concluded a report that was issued last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“The United States should begin the journey to develop a next-generation missile defense.” It called for pursuing a “space-based kill layer” that would try to shoot down swarms of enemy warheads and missiles—a step that would go beyond the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars” research on space arms, and no doubt prompt new rounds of reaction from Mr. Putin and the Russian military.

Here the Times quotes CSIS doing what CSIS was set up and specifically funded to do: push for the US to buy ever-more elaborate and exotic weapons systems from the arms makers who bankroll the think tank (FAIR.org, 8/12/16). Sanger and Broad have an itch, and CSIS has come along to scratch it: There’s a “void” in response to the Russian threat and, oh, here’s this “strategy,” by a Very Official group with “Strategic” right in its name, and it’s calling for an obscene amount of spending on new missile systems that blow things up from space.

Who would possibly build such a system? By sheer coincidence, five of CSIS’s top 10 corporate funders—Lockheed Martin, Leonardo Finmeccanica, Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman—are positioned to do just that. As the New York Times (8/8/16) itself reported in August 2016, after it obtained a cache of private emails from the organization, CSIS is little more than a lobbying arms of the weapons industry:

As a think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies did not file a lobbying report, but the goals of the effort were clear.

“Political obstacles to export,” read the agenda of one closed-door “working group” meeting organized by Mr. Brannen that included Tom Rice, a lobbyist in General Atomics’ Washington office, on the invitation lists, the emails show.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin, drone-makers that were major CSIS contributors, were also invited to attend the sessions, the emails show. The meetings and research culminated with a report released in February 2014 that reflected the industry’s priorities.

“I came out strongly in support of export,” Mr. Brannen, the lead author of the study, wrote in an email to Kenneth B. Handelman, the deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade controls.

But the effort did not stop there.

Mr. Brannen initiated meetings with Defense Department officials and congressional staff to push for the recommendations, which also included setting up a new Pentagon office to give more focus to acquisition and deployment of drones. The center also stressed the need to ease export limits at a conference it hosted at its headquarters featuring top officials from the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps.

As FAIR (5/8/17) noted last summer, when documenting CSIS’s love for the Lockheed-built THAAD missile system in South Korea, 30 out of 30 times when they weighed in on the wisdom of a weapons system, it was in support—an entirely predictable trend for a group largely supported by those who make such systems. When asked by FAIR via email if CSIS had ever publicly opposed a new weapons purchase or deployment, CSIS did not respond.

The stakes for these marketing efforts are hardly trivial. The Aerospace & Defense index “is already up nearly 6 percent year to date,” Barron’s (2/26/18) noted last month, “compared to a 2.8 percent gain for the S&P 500, while Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon all sport double-digit gains in 2018.” Since Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the US’s second-largest defense contractor and CSIS’s second-biggest arms-industry donor, Boeing, has seen its stock more than double, from $159 to $345 a share.

The same New York Times/CSIS itch-and-scratch combination, as FAIR (Extra!, 10/16) reported at the time, was used when the Times insisted the US was “lagging behind” Russia in the Arctic, citing another CSIS report. And guess how that one turned out? As we noted the following fall:

In May [2017] the torrent of media articles hyping the “Arctic gap” asserted by CSIS and the US military paid dividends, with Congress allocating an additional $1 billion to the Navy’s budget to pay for icebreaker ships.

While the contracts are not awarded yet, Lockheed Martin—one of CSIS’s top donors—is said by market analysts the Motley Fool (7/24/16) to be an “obvious choice” to build the new fleet. Their runner up to build the new icebreakers? Huntington Ingalls Industries, who also donated generously to CSIS.

We’re seeing this play out once again. CSIS releases a report saying the Russians are getting the better of us, major outlets like the New York Times uncritically spread this message, their reporting is used as further evidence we need more military spending, that military spending is lavished on CSIS’s clients (d/b/a “donors”). Meanwhile, CSIS is treated as a neutral, objective “Washington think tank,” and its well-documented (by the Times itself!) conflicts of interest in pushing its funders’ weapons systems go unmentioned.

At the very least, one would hope that if the Times is going to handwring about how the largest military in the history of the world by a factor of 10 is leaving a “void” of influence, perhaps they can consult a group that isn’t paid millions of dollars to fill that void when discussing how best to do so.

Adam Johnson / FAIR

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