The Danger of the Media’s Military Experts

Rachel Larue/Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia

“We welcome to the show retired General…” has become a stock phrase of the cable news media landscape. In the age of fast-paced news, analysis of security questions has become the domain of private interests acting in the role of policy experts. Though not limited solely to retired military officials, this phenomenon has come to embody a structural orientation that nudges U.S. foreign policy in a militaristic direction.

Nineteenth century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously proclaimed that “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” Scholars still disagree whether or not he meant “policy” or “politics” (since the original German politik applies to both), yet contemporary media coverage offers an inversion of this logic regardless of which interpretation is given. That is to say, war has become decoupled from the achievement of specific aims within a grand strategy. Instead, interventionist policies have conflated leadership within the U.S.-led world order with U.S. or NATO military presence as such. The knee-jerk reaction to retaliate militarily, even in the absence of any tactical or strategic objectives, has become a prevailing attitude.

In April 2018, the Western intelligence community alleged that the Syrian government had carried out a chemical weapons attack on rebel forces in Douma. Immediately, there was constant talk in the media of a possible U.S. attack on Syria. MSNBC program Morning Joe brought on retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who went on to decry President Donald Trump’s purely reactive attitude before going on to advocate for airstrikes—the very method used by the president himself. Most striking in this interaction was how both Stavridis and the Commander-in-Chief, when stripped of their rhetorical differences, essentially maintained the same core policy: a military strike on Syria.

While Syria in particular has been at the forefront over the last couple of years, this bipartisan tendency toward the use of military force has affected U.S. foreign policy as a whole. The media’s use of retired military officials, who often have financial interests entangled in the defense sector, structurally biases the information environment in favor of military force. As such, the media fails in its role of keeping both public and private interests in check.

A recurrent face these days on MSNBC is John Brennan, former director of the CIA. When he is brought on the air, it is usually to either attack the president’s instincts to reduce troops in foreign theaters, or to pontificate on human rights abuses without being questioned on his own prior support for torture. His stance that pulling U.S. troops out of Syria (an undeclared war zone lacking both congressional and UN authorization) results in “surrendering America’s role on the world stage” is by no means an unusual position on cable television. When someone does dissent from the ongoing drumbeat for war, however, it often results in their exit from a particular media organ, or from the media stage entirely.

One such case is that of the journalist William M. Arkin, who chose not to renew his NBC contract on January 4 with this revealing quote:

Despite being at “war,” no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the Petraeus’ and Wes Clarks’, or the so-called warrior monks like Mattis and McMaster, we’ve had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently have done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as “analysts”. We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: There is not one country in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.

It is presented to the American people as a given that the United States should be deployed omnipresently around the world. The reliance on military experts, who are generally not brought on to discuss the legality or ethics of military force, is an exercise in rhetoric that confuses means and ends. Asking if the United States can topple a government, as opposed to should, is their primary mode of thinking.

An underlying question remains, which needs to be understood before comprehending the mechanics of their media involvement: why do the retired generals hold the views that they do? The lack of dissenting voices is partly explained by financial incentive. While the guests heralded by the media are often retired from their military role, they have by no means ended their careers. Frequently, they use their publicly-funded training and reputation to work for private corporations whose financial interests are entangled with the positions being promoted. The result is that private industry subverts the state’s decision-making apparatus using the state’s own investments as the vector. Government funds and taxpayer revenues end up supporting careers based on the capture of policy decisions by private lobbies.

All of this takes place within a wider environment of incentives. The actions of former military officials, media organizations, and government all influence one another. From the perspective of career military professionals, it makes sense to pursue opportunities in adjacent sectors where this expertise is valuable. Policy consulting and military hardware are two routine sectors. Meanwhile, media organizations attempt to form relationships with the highest value individuals possible and maintain them as best they can. As such, those in the military-industrial and media sectors are incentivized to form ongoing and mutually beneficial relationships with retired military officials. In the context of the media, these relationships allow retired military officials to elevate their personal position in exchange for generating content oriented towards a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy. In the context of the defense industry, these officials receive a sinecure in exchange for providing contacts and non-public information.

It is theoretically possible for a government to exercise control over this phenomenon, though in America there is a strong tendency in favor of exploiting public resources (in this case the extremely high public trust afforded to the military) for private gain. Stronger and more explicit controls could be placed on the private sector activity of former high-ranking military officials, but the agility, entrenchment, and size of military-media networks make it unlikely that, in their current state, gridlocked and comparatively decentralized U.S. governing bodies would be able to pull off such a feat. Indeed, elements within the foreign policy establishment actually have a convergent interest with the pro-intervention agendas of many of those involved. Even the political discourse itself ultimately justifies the existence of these influential networks by invoking them as protected by rights to free speech and association, particularly in the context of private citizens interacting in the free market, whatever their motives and influence on public matters may be.

In the absence of political power restructuring the incentive landscape, individuals, defense contractors, and media companies will continue successfully pursuing their own interests and externalizing the costs. Moral harping on this confluence of interests alone will not accomplish much.

A good example of this phenomenon is retired four-star Army General Barry McCaffrey, who has appeared numerous times on television and has been quoted even more times in newspaper articles (when he isn’t busy charging upwards of $25,000 for a speech). A central theme in his message during the Iraq War was the absolute necessity for Congress to buy 5,000 armored vehicles. The only problem was that he declined to mention that he was hired by Defense Solutions, which produces armored vehicles, just a month earlier and even went on to praise his boss as having “the heart of a lion.” It might appear unfair to single him out, had it not been for the fact that the lion in question, the chief executive of Defense Solutions, admitted that “[t]hat’s what I pay him for.” Similar examples abound.

Military officials, both in active service and those retired, benefit from a significant degree of legitimacy beyond what partisan politicians can usually achieve. This is partly because the military stably remains the institution with the highest rating of confidence in American society, compared to Congress, big business, public schools, the media, banks, etc. As such, military officials are often treated as though their expertise and motives are beyond reproach. At times, the media even brings on figures like U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who violated the law and traded arms for hostages with Iran in order to finance Central American death squads, and gives them their own shows. Nevertheless, the past two decades of American military interventions have left a rather dismal track record that ought to raise some amount of skepticism regarding the ability of this community to deliver on its marketing.

The ultimate results of their predictions are perhaps best exemplified by Afghanistan. “I think 2005 can be a decisive year,” said Army General John Abizaid, then-commander of U.S. Central Command, before later going on to work for Defense Vulture Group. Shortly afterwards, Army General Dan McNeill, then-commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2007 to 2008 and future president of The Logistics Company, Inc., claimed that he saw “a sign of relatively good security and stability” in the country. At the end of 2014, Army General John F. Campbell, a member of the board of directors of British munitions producer BAE Systems, stated that “[t]ogether, we have lifted the Afghan people out of the darkness of despair…we will triumph.” As of December 2018, the Taliban controls more territory than at any other time since the U.S. invasion of 2001. A 2012 report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington noted that 70 percent of retired generals from 2009 to 2011 signed up with defense contractors or other consultants after they had retired from the service. A November 2018 report by the Project on Government Oversight found that from 2008 to 2018, 25 generals, 43 lieutenant generals, nine admirals, and 23 vice admirals became lobbyists, consultants, or executives for the defense industry, after they retired from service.

In their seminal work Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky offer what they term the “propaganda model.” This model depicts an intricate system of collusion where shared interests meet, rather than a group of independent actors. The resulting corporate media landscape, while permitting some room for marginal disagreement, encourages intellectual and rhetorical submission and discourages contradiction through radically divergent analyses.

A rather obvious component of the propaganda model is its reliance on establishment sources, which entrenches corporate and governmental elite interests. The formula is simple: a member of the press will reach out to a government official who in turn will “leak” information. The result will be that the journalist will have received a “scoop,” which reaffirms their position in the industry, while the bureaucracy subtly pushes its position under the guise of a free media, a cover that outright dictatorships lack.

An infamous, yet far too common, example of this phenomenon was a September 2002 article in The New York Times titled “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” In the piece, Judith Miller and Michael Gordon used the phrase “American officials” a total of eight times to substantiate the claim that intercepted aluminum tubes en route to Iraq were intended for the production of uranium centrifuges. But the true danger was not the article per se. The same day, Bush administration officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went on to cite the article, despite the source of the “leak” being Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Notably, both the State Department and Department of Energy had informed the Bush administration that the aluminum tubes could not be used for centrifuges.

Herman and Chomsky’s model depends on conformity, which is best enforced through either interdependence or ostracization, or more effectively, both. Media outlets need access, which in turn is maintained by not being overly critical of the source. By not toeing the line, a reporter or show host not only risks losing access to that particular individual, but also those who exist in the same sphere. It is therefore not surprising to see which members of the media are invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where those who are meant to be a part of the adversarial media manage to rub elbows with Pentagon officials, advocates of war, congressmen, and celebrities. By engaging in this practice, reporters cease to be merely innocent victims of a corrupt system and become corrupting influences themselves. In practical terms, the military-media network becomes self-selecting. Reporters who participate are active agents entrenching the ideological positions of the network as a whole in the sphere of media, which in turn enter the public consciousness. While some may participate through authentic ideological agreement and others for the sake of personal advancement, the effect remains the same.

Deviation is not looked upon kindly. In May 2003, Chris Hedges was booed and had his microphone cut twice during an anti-war speech at Rockford College during a commencement address that he was invited to give. The local student paper then printed the headline “Speaker Disrupts RC Graduation.” In and of itself, this microcosm can be seen as either an irrelevantly small anecdote or an example of how pervasive establishment thought can be. Yet that is not the true scandal. The veteran war correspondent, who had spent over fifteen years covering conflicts as far apart as Nicaragua and Bosnia, was further reprimanded by his own employer, The New York Times, for potentially jeopardizing the paper’s impartiality.

The compulsion to complicity comes with further risks when applied to military experts. The state of permanent war that defines American foreign policy is literally a matter of life and death, with indirect consequences on everything from mass migration to famine to religious extremism. Yet despite the implications, adequate debate has been utterly lacking when it mattered most—changed minds years after the fact, notwithstanding. The question which is debated is not utility, but severity. The pressure to adapt and accommodate is not limited to broadcasters or journalists, but permeates far deeper into the culture. Aside from “independent” think tanks, which have to worry about pleasing their funders, even pure entertainment is affected. In exchange for access, Hollywood studios (which are owned by parent companies that own the major media outlets, as well) routinely rewrite their scripts in order to please the Pentagon. Hollywood-directed popular culture shapes the very biases and desires of the population, which in turn shape future narratives and likely also voter choices.

The media’s focus on military experts as commentators also has the effect of excluding groups with similar subject matter expertise, which could provide alternative viewpoints and analytic correctives. For example, retired career diplomats and international relations theorists are vastly underrepresented in the media landscape, despite the fact that such interactions would help to correct the biases of each side. In the case of Syria, the American press has been largely silent on the ongoing talks at Astana, where the Syrian government and rebels are negotiating. Searching The Wall Street Journal’s site for “Astana” at the end of 2018 yields zero results for discussions on the progress of the negotiations.

On the rare occasion when diplomats are actually included, they tend to come with baggage. Often times, they are not diplomats in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they are political appointees. For example, at the time of her appointment as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton’s only notable role in international affairs and conflict resolution was a fabricated story about dodging sniper fire in Bosnia.

This aversion to diplomacy has manifested itself in destructive policymaking before. In early 1999, Yugoslavia was suffering from a series of terrorist attacks, which the Kosovo Liberation Army conducted in the hopes of triggering a disproportionate response. It worked. At Rambouillet, the Anglo-Franco-American alliance pressed ahead with demands that were tantamount to occupation terms. Not only were Yugoslav forces required to evacuate Kosovo and permit the province to vote for independence, but the alliance also mandated that NATO forces be given complete access and legal immunity throughout all of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. When Belgrade refused these terms listed in the Rambouillet Agreement and instead offered autonomy to Kosovo and access for international troops in the province alone, it was slammed by governments and journalists alike for having rejected peace. This is all despite the fact that even the European Union negotiator, Wolfgang Petritsch, believed that an agreement could not have been reached as long as NATO insisted on its demand.

Media complicity in permitting military intervention in Yugoslavia was strengthened by the pre-existing fusion between retired military brass and media. This synthesis even led to Western media celebration of the destruction of local Yugoslav media institutions. When NATO forces purposely attacked Radio Television Serbia, reporters at The Washington Post acted as uncritical stenographers, reprinting quotes verbatim from the U.S. Air Force discussing how “affecting the psychological state of the adversary’s civilian population is a proper military objective,” even though the colonel in question did not “have any specific information on the subject.” This practice continues to this day with the Post condemning other media outlets for working with questionable regimes while collaborating with those very same regimes.

This complicity transfers to journalists themselves and thereby becomes integral to the media, even when divorced from the presence of military experts. During the 2016 election cycle, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria compared then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler and described his actions as that of a “bullshit artist.” But one thing managed to change Zakaria’s mind: he went on to praise Trump in April 2017 for bombing Syria and described the decision as the moment when “Donald Trump became the president of the United States.” While Senator Rand Paul was arguing against weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, Wolf Blitzer not only completely evaded the humanitarian catastrophe but instead asked about the impact on those who work in the defense sector. In many ways, the modern day journalist has in turn become a de facto military consultant—just without the medals, military experience, or discipline.

In 1935, retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler recognized that “[t]here wouldn’t be very much sense in having a 76-year-old president of a munitions factory, or the flat-footed head of an international banking firm, or the cross-eyed manager of a uniform manufacturing plant—all of whom see visions of tremendous profits in the event of war, voting on whether the nation should go to war or not.”

Decades later, however, the media has left analysis to those most personally and financially invested in war. Without retaking the initiative for independent analysis of military policy, the media will continue serving as nothing more than stenographers for a lobby financially incentivized to promote ongoing military intervention. The longer the status quo remains, the more impervious it becomes to the Fourth Estate.

Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom is a history student at the University of Cambridge and a freelance writer with a focus on security policy, foreign affairs, and international relations.