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Pundits with undisclosed funding from arms manufacturers urge ‘stronger force posture’ to counter China

The Trump administration’s efforts to blame China for COVID-19’s rising death toll in the U.S. have not been backed up by intelligence assessments, but it has not stopped Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from making the baseless assertion that the virus originated in a Chinese lab or the Trump campaign from attacking the presumptive Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, as too weak on China. But there may be more than political opportunism at play. Weapons manufacturers stand to reap huge profits if they can stoke a new cold war between the U.S. and China.

Those overlapping interests were on display last week when The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by two former Trump administration officials claiming, “The Covid-19 pandemic has convinced many that the U.S. must fundamentally change its policy toward China. Shifting course is necessary, but it won’t be achieved with a few policy tweaks.”

“That’s because,” they added, “the pandemic’s political and economic effects are bringing about a more assertive Chinese grand strategy.” 

There are at least two big problems with this op-ed.

First, there’s no actual evidence or explanation provided about COVID-19 “bringing about a more assertive Chinese grand strategy” but the authors plow forward with their theory that “Beijing was cruising to global domination” unchallenged.

Second, both of the op-ed’s authors have undisclosed conflicts of interest that might motivate their prescription for a new U.S. grand strategy centered on, among other things, “maritime and aerospace power.”

The authors, Elbridge Colby (who served as assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017-2018) and A. Wess Mitchell (who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs from 2017-2019), are both employed by institutions that receive considerable funding from weapons manufacturers.

The Wall Street Journal describes Colby and Mitchell as “principals of the Marathon Initiative,” an entity that has no website and about which there is little public information other than that it was formed on May 7, 2020 according to the Washington, DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

The Marathon Initiative shares an address with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) where Mitchell serves as vice chairman and received $227,500 in compensation in 2017. Donors to CEPA include a defense industry who’s who: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Bell Helicopter, and BAE Systems.

Mitchell’s co-author, Colby, also appears to have benefited financially from funding originating from arms manufacturers.

Colby is a senior adviser at WestExec Advisors, which does not disclose its client list. But one of the company’s co-founders, Obama Defense Department appointee Michèle Flournoy, told The Intercept back in 2018 that “we help tech firms who are trying to figure out how to sell in the public sector space, to navigate the DOD, the intel community, law enforcement .”

And from 2014 to 2017 and 2018 to 2019 Colby worked at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) which counts Northrop Grumman as one of its biggest donors (contributing more than $500,000 between October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019) as well as contributions from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Bell Helicopter, BAE Systems, General Dynamics, Boeing and DynCorp.

None of this is to say that Colby and Mitchell don’t genuinely believe that COVID-19’s spread and China’s lack of transparency about the virus’s initial outbreak justifies the military-heavy strategies they propose.

But when the op-ed concludes, “The West must recognize that it will either pay now or pay later to contain China. Paying now is likely to produce a more tolerable bill,” it’s worth noting that weapons manufacturers and defense contractors, who have helped finance the authors’ careers in the Beltway, will be the ones sending that bill to taxpayers.    

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