The Washington Post’s Neocons are Beating Cold War Drums…Again

Image Source: F Delventhal – CC BY 2.0

The Washington Post has a reputation as liberal and even left-of-center, although its editorial pages are dominated by neoconservatives who support the idea of American exceptionalism and the extreme operational tempo of America’s military.  In the past week, we have been treated to a series of oped essays that are supportive of expanded American military power and a political, if not military, confrontation with China.

U.S. national media generally have been lazy in their treatment of our military—pandering to the military itself and resorting to retired general officers, such as Generals David Petraeus and Jack Keane, as spokesmen.  The media typically defend bloated defense budgets and fail to challenge the dangerous militarization of national security decision making.

The Washington Post is particularly supportive of a more militarized national security policy, including a possible confrontation with China.  A group of their oped writers, particularly Michael Gerson, David Ignatius, and George Will, argue that the United States needs to increase defense spending to “protect the country from a full range of global disasters.”  Ignatius, a long-time apologist for the Central Intelligence Agency, conceded the need for restoring the “right civilian-military alignment,” but offered former secretary of defense Robert Gates as his model because Gates “could be ruthless” with aides to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  Gates was, in fact, a captive of the uniformed military.

Ignatius beats the drums for the just created U.S. Space Force, which inherits 86 space warriors graduating from the Air Force Academy.  War in space would be a catastrophe, and even Air Force chief of staff General David Goldfein concedes that in every war game that involves space, we “never come out winning.”  (During my years at the National War College, China prevailed in every war game that revolved around Taiwan.)  This year’s defense budget appropriates more than $15 billion for space systems, when we should be looking for ways to demilitarize the space frontier—and not promoting another arms race.  No country is as dependent economically as the United States on access to space.

George Will wants a modernized and more lethal Marine Corps at a time when our most dangerous adversaries have developed “high volume, extended-range missile warfare” to deal with threats from the sea.  There is a reason why the Marines have not resorted to an amphibious landing since the first months of the Korean War, and that is the high risk and great difficulty of such operations.  President Harry S. Truman recognized the island-hopping success of the Marines in the Second World War, but he was right for wanting to abolish the Marine Corps at war’s end.  Chinese cruise missile technology already has made it certain that U.S. naval ships, including aircraft carriers, will not be able to get close enough to the Chinese Mainland to be effective, and the idea of island-hopping against China is pure fantasy.

Gerson, the leading speechwriter for President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2002 that prepared the way for the invasion of Iraq, regularly refers to an “increasingly belligerent China.”  He believes that Biden would do well to recruit unnamed defense and foreign policy advisers from the Bush administration.  Does this mean Biden should bring back Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Gates, and Condi Rice who are responsible for policies that have brought the longest period of continuous U.S. war fighting in our history?  Gerson even believes that Biden “should be actively persuading…respected military and intelligence figures who served in the Trump administration to publicly support him.”  Gerson’s usual suspects are not the answer.

On April 30, the Washington Post carried two additional opeds that endorsed an aggressive policy toward China, pointing to “superior force” as the “surest road to peace.”  Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2017-2018, argued that “superior Western economic, diplomatic, and military power” defeated the Soviet Union, and that the current challenge from the “Chinese Communists must be seen the same way.”

George Will believes that Joe Biden should be the next president because he is willing to “stand up to China, and encourages Biden to “associate himself” with Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who endorses the conspiratorial theory regarding the responsibility of the research laboratory in Wuhan for the viral outbreak there.  Cotton, the Cold War warrior, wrote in the Post on May 3 that the “Chinese Communist Party is our enemy.  It aims to displace the United States as the world’s preeminent economic and military power.”

Unfortunately, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are already making the issue of a hardline toward China a central issue of the campaign.  Leading Democrats such as Senator Charles Schumer are calling on Trump to be more aggressive toward China.  The Biden campaign is attacking Trump for being insufficiently tough on China.  This is reminiscent of gratuitous anti-Soviet posturing during presidential campaigns in the worst days of the Cold War.  Trump needs no encouragement; his deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and his leading economic adviser Peter Navarro are extremely bellicose toward China.

Another Washington Post oped writer, Josh Rogin is ignoring efforts of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to link the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic to the Wuhan laboratory.  In an oped on May 1, Rogin falsely credited Pompeo with calling for “depoliticizing” the issue of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.  Pompeo prevented a communique at a recent G-7 meeting because he couldn’t get any of the European representatives to support his polemical accusations.  Nevertheless, Rogin cited Pompeo’s specious urgings that the issue of Beijing’s handling of the virus should not become “partisan.  It’s too serious a matter.”

Pompeo, the leading cheerleader in this campaign, has charged his hand-picked director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, with finding evidence implicating the research lab, according to the New York Times,.  However, there is evidence to suggest that Haspel will not accommodate her old boss.  Haspel has stood up to the White House on sensitive issues such as the role of Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman in the sadistic killing of a dissident journalist; Russian hacking in the U.S. electoral process; and the origin of the Covid-19 virus.  Haspel’s intelligence analysts could inform Pompeo that it is counterproductive to maintain that the United States and its allies must keep China in “its proper place.” On the other hand, the Defense Intelligence Agency, well known for its willingness to politicize intelligence, recently changed its analytical position in order to accommodate the view that a research lab in Wuhan was the origin of the new pathogen.

Haspel has even protected the job and personal security of the CIA whistleblower whose report led directly to the impeachment process.

At a time when the Sino-American relationship is central to stabilizing the international arena, we are getting no discussion of the importance of mutual military disengagement in the area of the South China Sea and the need for smart diplomacy.  Washington and Beijing are compatible on important strategic issues that deal with the Korean peninsula; the importance of North Korean denuclearization; and the necessity of toning down the risk-taking proclivities of Kim Jong On.  In view of the continued uncertainty in North Korea, it is essential that Washington and Beijing have programmatic diplomatic discussions.

A diplomatic dialogue between Washington and Beijing on Korean issues could lead to possibilities for stabilizing the naval rivalry in the South China Sea as well as creating less friction over the issue of Taiwan.  We could send fewer guided-missile cruisers into the South China Sea; China could stop its provocative circumnavigation of Taiwan with fighters and strategic bombers.  Even a modest improvement in Sino-American relations would be advantageous, making the strengthened Sino-Russian relationship less threatening to the United States.  It makes no sense for the editorial pages of the Washington Post to assist the efforts of the military-industrial complex to strengthen its case for greater defense spending by exaggerating the so-called threat from China.

Every American president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama has endorsed a policy of engagement toward China, but Trump’s obsession with trade deficits has created the worst political and economic friction between Washington and Beijing since the first years of the Vietnam War. Trump’s scapegoating of China also serves to deflect responsibility for his pathetic response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Unfortunately, the confrontational approach of Trump and deputy national security adviser Pottinger has garnered bipartisan endorsement, and it will be difficult to reverse the current direction.

It is important not to gainsay China’s handling of the viral outbreak, which contributed to the international impact of the pandemic, but the global crisis currently demands dialogue and cooperation between the United States and China in order to save lives.   There will be a time to discuss the initial handling of the pandemic as well as the deceit of both Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, but now isn’t that time.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for