Caveat Emptor. There is no better way to exaggerate perceptions of the threat than to rely on the worst-case assumptions of the Department of Defense. Since the creation of the department in the National Security Act of 1947 we have been inundated with the Pentagon’s distortions: the non-existent “bomber gap” in the 1950s; the “missile gap” in the 1960s; and the so-called “intentions gap” of the 1980s, which argued that the Soviet Union believed that it could fight and even win a nuclear war.
One of the reasons why President Harry S. Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency, also in the National Security Act, was to have an independent civilian agency challenging the Pentagon’s self-serving briefings on Capitol Hill for increased defense spending. The imperative for the military is to ensure the continued flow of funding for its arsenal. To this end, it will always posit the worst case possible that it must defend against.
The mainstream media should be well aware of the dangers of relying on military briefings and assessments when editorializing about the capabilities and intentions of putative adversaries such as Russia and China. But the Washington Post, which has been beating the editorial drums for challenging Beijing, is currently using the Pentagon’s latest report to the Congress on China’s military strength to promote increased U.S. defense spending and additional military deployments in East Asia. The Post and the New York Times regularly cite the U.S. Cold War with China, a very dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.
The Central Intelligence Agency often provided the institutional challenge that Truman wanted to counter the Pentagon’s exaggerated threat perceptions. CIA’s intelligence analysis demonstrated there was no bomber gap in the 1950s and no missile gap in the 1960s. The CIA successfully challenged the Pentagon’s views on strategic missiles and strategic defense, which paved the way for the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. I served as the intelligence advisor to the U.S. delegation in the run-up to the completion of the treaties, and spent as much time challenging the distorted analysis of the Pentagon as I did assessing Soviet military capabilities.
There has never been a disarmament treaty, moreover, that didn’t require bureaucratic wrestling with the civilian and military leadership of the Department of Defense. In 1975, then Vice President Dick Cheney and then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were so opposed to CIA analysis that supported arms control and disarmament that they placed a team of right-wing academics and government officials inside the agency to draft hard-line estimates of Soviet military power. When CIA director William Colby tried to block the appointment of this team, the notorious Team B, he was replaced by a more pliable director of central intelligence, George H.W. Bush, the agency’s first political appointee.
Like Bush, there were other CIA directors who didn’t play this balancing role. William Casey, Robert Gates, Porter Goss, and George Tenet refused to challenge the Pentagon’s distortions and were willing to politicize intelligence on behalf of their administrations. Gates issued constant warnings to his analysts in the 1980s not to “stick your fingers in the eyes of policymakers.” Under Gates, senior military officers came into the CIA to occupy key positions and were given increased influence. Gates gave the responsibility for order of battle analysis to the Pentagon, which provided an important instrument for preparing worst-case analysis.
After the reelection of George W. Bush, Goss circulated an internal memorandum to all agency employees to tell them their job was to “support the administration and its policies in our work.” And George Tenet thought it would be a “slam dunk” to provide Bush with the intelligence needed to invade Iraq. Tenet and his deputy director, John McLaughlin, were responsible for the preparation of then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s spurious address to the United Nations in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003.
This history of the Pentagon’s deceit (and the CIA’s politicization) is well known to the veteran journalists and editorial writers at the mainstream media, but the Washington Post and the New York Times highlighted the Pentagon’s latest report to the Congress on China’s military strength without mentioning the history of the Pentagon’s politicization of military intelligence. The New York Times even cited the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, who told the Aspen Security Forum that the United States “absolutely” could defend Taiwan from an attack by China if our “political leaders decided to do so.” Senior generals blamed the Congress for pulling the rug out from under the military effort in Vietnam; now they are preparing the way for placing the onus on any failure in East Asia on the Congress as well.
Demonizing China serves the military interests of the Department of Defense; the economic interests of the military-industrial complex; and the ideological interests of the right wing—but not the national security interests of the American people. It is time to challenge the elevated role of the military in our political culture; the bipartisan support for military spending that has become sacrosanct; and the culture of militarism that has placed U.S. bases all over the world. The overestimation of our military power led to setbacks over the past 70 years on the Korean peninsula; Southeast Asia; and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the “best and the brightest” among our civilian leadership that led us into these fool’s errands.
On a more abstruse level, the mainstream media often takes statements out of context and provides a greater sense of provocation between the United States and Russia or China. When Nikita Khrushchev said in 1956 that “we will bury you,” he was stating that “we shall outlast you,” rather than suggesting the possibility of warfare. In an editorial in the Washington Post in July, Xi’s reference to a “great wall of steel” was interpreted as a threatening message to China’s adversaries rather than the use of a patriotic image taken from China’s national anthem.
Since the Second World War, no president has had credibility and experience with national security policy and military affairs comparable to that of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He warned about the increased power and influence of the Pentagon over the national security policy of the United States. He understood the need to monitor the Pentagon’s supreme position in military and security policy, which has grown in recent years. Soon after the death of Joseph Stalin, Eisenhower warned about the tremendous cost associated with the rivalry with the Soviet Union, particularly the enormous domestic cost. He warned that “humanity [was] hanging from a cross of iron,” and noted the danger of “destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.”
Unfortunately, the military itself and the role of the military have taken on too much prestige and influence within the American public. There is profound cynicism toward governance and civilian institutions, but excessive deference to the demands and views of the professional military. The only genuine aspect of bipartisanship in the halls of Congress is the approval for excessive defense spending. The culture of American exceptionalism and militarism is creating profound problems for the United States at home and abroad. The mainstream media must stop serving as a handmaid to the overreaching of U.S. leaders. Again, caveat emptor.