You could see something new playing out on the Sunday shows this weekend: Some TV news networks are starting to raise questions about whether the U.S. involvement in the Ukraine might have some downsides.
After hearing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who called for "more weapons, more sanctions" — and Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova — who asked for "more military support, more sanctions" — "Face the Nation" host Margaret Brennan warmly welcomed Jim Taiclet, the chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, tossing him questions that weren't even softballs, they were bouquets.
One can imagine how that might have come about. Earlier in the week, President Biden visited a Lockheed Martin factory in Alabama that makes Javelin anti-tank missiles, pitching his requests for $33 billion in aid to Ukraine and subsidies for American microchip production. So Ukraine and supply-chain issues were in the news, and Taiclet could address both.
But still, what it came down to was a major television network inviting onto its marquee news show the head of the largest weapons manufacturer in the world — the company that profits more from war than any other company worldwide — and not asking a single pointed question.
Watch the entire six-minute segment and ask yourself if state television in a totalitarian country would have done it any differently.
After praising the Javelin and marveling at Lockheed's ability to ramp up production so quickly, Brennan actually fed Taiclet a line to make it seem like what he was doing is particularly noble.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You said -- well, you implied you’re basically doing on spec, right?
JIM TAICLET: That's right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you're a businessperson. You have to plan ahead. We don't know how long this war is going to last. The CIA says, you know, Vladimir Putin thinks he's got to double down here. So, how long are you planning for with this ramp up?
The idea that Lockheed is taking a risk and doing this "on spec" is risible. Orders are pouring in, not the least of which being a new request from the Army for $239 million in Javelins over the next three years.
And Taiclet himself then proceeded to make the case that for Lockheed, things are looking very good indeed for sales on Javelins, Stingers, and “advanced cruise missiles.”
“The Ukrainian conflict has highlighted a couple of really important things for us,” he said. “One is that we need to have superior systems in large enough numbers. …So, we know there's going to be increased demand for those kinds of systems from the U.S. and for our allies as well and beyond into Asia Pacific most likely too.”
Taiclet said the “second really valuable lesson” from the war in Ukraine is that “control of the air space is really critical” and then began the upsell:
So products and systems like F-16, F-35, patriot missiles, THAAD missiles, we know that there's going to be increased demand for those kinds of equipment, too, because the threat between Russia and China is just going to increase even after the Ukrainian war, we hope is over soon. Though two nations, and regionally Iran and North Korea, are not going to get less active. Probably they're going to get more active. So we want to make sure we can supply our allies and our country what they need to defend against that.
This guy is a weapons merchant. He sees crises as opportunities. And once the war in Ukraine is over, he's clearly looking forward to increased tensions with Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
Brennan questioned nothing.
How much are U.S. taxpayers spending on those Javelins? She didn't ask. The Pentagon's 2023 budget request calls for buying 586, at a total cost of $189 million, or about $322,000 per unit.
How much is too much? Global military spending was already at astronomical levels even before Ukraine — topping $2 trillion for the first time in 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The United States accounts for 38 percent of that, more than the next 11 highest-spending countries combined.
Just how much money is Lockheed Martin making from all of this? It's by far the largest arms company in the world, with $67 billion in sales last year. In fact, it made so much money in 2021 that it spent $4.1 billion simply buying back its stock — a move that typically increases share prices and makes stock options wildly more lucrative.
So how much did Taiclet earn last year? $18 million. How much bigger a bonus will he get this year? Who knows?
Brennan also encouraged Taiclet to complain about supply chain issues.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So what do you need to do that, because you did say supply chain is an issue? I read that there's over, what, 250 microchips or semiconductors in each Javelin.
JIM TAICLET: That's right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We know there's an effort in Congress to get legislation to try to create more semiconductors here instead of relying on Asian suppliers. Can you do this scale-up without that kind of legislation?
Answering that question directly and honestly might have led to embarrassing Brennan, since Taiclet told investors last month that supply-chain issues are already being resolved, and that “we expect these timing impacts to be recovered over the course of 2022.”
So he sidestepped:
JIM TAICLET: It will be extremely helpful to have the bipartisan Innovation Act passed, for example, because we do need to invest more in the infrastructure in the U.S. so we have domestic supply, especially in microprocessors. And so our production line can run today, but in the future we're going to need more domestic capability in microprocessor, not only design, but manufacturing, testing, et cetera, so that were have assured supply of those microprocessors in the future.
Brennan kept on trying to feed him lines:
MARGARET BRENNAN: But we've heard on this program time and again from businesspeople how important that is to get done. Congress still hasn't voted on it or voted it through.
JIM TAICLET: Right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you have any commitments from anyone here in Washington to get this to the president's desk soon?
JIM TAICLET: Well, we know that there's a lot of support for it both in Congress, in the administration, the Commerce Department, et cetera.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Because it takes time to scale that up?
So it wasn't just that CBS invited the world's biggest weapons manufacturer to address its huge audience about an ongoing war — it fluffed him up and tried to get him to whine more, even as he spoke enthusiastically about future opportunities to make a killing.
"Face the Nation" was an outlier on Sunday, however. Hosts on several other networks asked at least a few skeptical questions of their guests.
Ironically, it may have taken an admonitory column by New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman to change their tone.
Friedman, whose optimistic warmongering during the Iraq war became synonymous with clueless, armchair-warrior punditry, wrote on Friday that we "are edging toward a direct war [with Russia] — and no one has prepared the American people or Congress for that." He continued:
We need to stick as tightly as possible to our original limited and clearly defined aim of helping Ukraine expel Russian forces as much as possible or negotiate for their withdrawal whenever Ukraine’s leaders feel the time is right.
But we are dealing with some incredibly unstable elements, particularly a politically wounded Putin. Boasting about killing his generals and sinking his ships, or falling in love with Ukraine in ways that will get us enmeshed there forever, is the height of folly.
On Fox News, mentioning Friedman’s piece led Sen. Lindsay Graham to even further heights of hawkery, declaring that "Putin must go. I like Tom Friedman, but… let's take out Putin by helping Ukraine." Even Baier asked if there was another way. "There is no offramp. No offramp," Graham insisted.
By contrast, on CNN, quoting Friedman led to a strong discussion with former CNN Moscow correspondent Jill Dougherty and New Yorker writer Robin Wright about what could "trigger a wider war."
Phillips asked Wright about her recent article declaring that "the conflict has rapidly evolved into a full proxy war with Russia, with global ramifications."
"We were initially reactive," Wright said. "We crossed a threshold in saying we want to weaken Russia, that Ukraine, independent and sovereign, will long outlast Vladimir Putin." Wright added that U.S. intelligence officials "went a step too far about the language about the intelligence we were giving."
And Dougherty raised the possibility of diminishing popular support, saying some Americans are "looking at the economy, and inflation going through the roof, and people who have investments are looking at the market, and there might be some people who say well where's all this money coming from? And why is it going to Ukraine? Don't we have problems?"
NBC's "Meet the Press" stuck entirely to the abortion debate. On ABC's "This Week," host Martha Raddatz promised viewers a discussion of how "intelligence leaks prompt new fears that the U.S. could be closer to direct conflict with Russia" – but that topic didn't actually come up in the two reports about Ukraine later in the show.
In the most hopeful sign that Washington journalists are becoming more skeptical in their reporting of the war in Ukraine, CNN "State of the Union" host Jake Tapper peppered U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield with solid questions, starting with a crucial one:
TAPPER: So, the U.S. is supplying deadly weapons, financial aid, intelligence that allows Ukraine to kill Russians. At what point is this just a proxy war that the U.S. is fighting against Russia, but the U.S. is not the one pulling the trigger? Where's the line there?
Thomas-Greenfield's answer was non-responsive, simply asserting that support will continue and "Russia has felt the consequences of our support for the Ukrainians."
TAPPER: I mean, we're not giving them the location of a Russian general so that they can order Uber Eats for them. It's with the express purpose of, here is where this Russian general is. Go do what you're going to do. And then the Ukrainians kill them.
The ambassador parried again:
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We're providing them with the intelligence, so that they can defend themselves against Russian aggression and also put them in a position where they're stronger at the negotiating table against the Russians. How they use that intelligence is up to them.
Good questions. The next step, of course, is demanding real answers.
Dan Froomkin is a widely-cited media critic and founder/editor of the nonprofit organization Press Watch (presswatchers.org), where he advocates for political journalism that is more honest about the dangers of disinformation, asymmetrical polarization, and an increasingly nationalist and authoritarian political party. Before Press Watch, he spent over three decades as a reporter, editor and columnist, including 20 years in online news at the Intercept, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. At the Post, he wrote the daily "White House Watch" column. His first jobs were in local news, at the Winston-Salem Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Orange County Register.
Somali National Army soldiers march during the 57th Anniversary of the Somali National Army held at the Ministry of defence in Mogadishu on April 12, 2017. AMISOM Photo / Ilyas Ahmed. Original public domain image from Flickr
On February 15, the U.S. government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Somalia to construct up to five military bases for the Somali National Army in the name of bolstering the army’s capabilities in the ongoing fight against the militant group al-Shabaab.
This is a troubling development that not only risks further militarizing Somalia and perpetuating endless war, but comes with the potential of exacerbating geopolitical rivalries at the expense of the needs and interests of ordinary Somalis.
According to statements by U.S. officials, the bases are intended for the Danab (“Lightning”) Brigade, a U.S.-sponsored Special Ops Force that was established in 2014. Funding for Danab initially came from the U.S. State Department, which contracted the private security firm Bancroft Global to train and advise the unit. More recently, Danab has received funding, equipment, and training from the Department of Defense.
U.S. support is made possible by the 127e program, a U.S. budgetary authority that allows the Pentagon to bypass congressional oversight by allowing U.S. special operations forces to use foreign military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. The Intercept has documented similar 127e operations in multiple African countries, primarily in locations that the U.S. government does not recognize as combat zones, but in which AFRICOM troops are present on the ground.
But this MoU is about much more than the U.S. government’s proclaimed commitment to help Somalia defeat al-Shabaab. It is a clear indication of the growing geopolitical significance of the Horn of Africa, and comes at a time of mounting concerns (mostly attempts by Yemen’s Houthis to disrupt global shipping in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza) about securing the flow of international commerce via the Red Sea. It also coincides with a growing awareness that rising tensions in the Middle East could force the U.S. out of Iraq.
The U.S. government’s plan to train Somali security forces at newly-established military bases in five different parts of the country (Baidoa, Dhusamareb, Jowhar, Kismayo, and Mogadishu) is a back-door strategy not only to expand the U.S. military’s presence in Somalia, but to position itself more assertively vis-à-vis other powers in the region. Indeed, the 127e program is not the only policy that allows for the training and equipping of foreign forces as proxies: section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act further expands the ability of the U.S. to wage war via surrogate forces in places where it has not formally declared war, with the broader objective of countering the influence of adversaries like China and Russia.
While much ink has been spilled attempting to analyze great power competition on the continent, we have yet to adequately scrutinize the growing influence of middle powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar who are each attempting to negotiate their own sphere of influence, and whose involvement in the Horn points to uncertain, if not waning, U.S. power.
Turkey maintains its largest foreign military presence in Mogadishu, has trained Somali security forces, and more recently has worked closely with the Somali government in conducting drone strikes against Al-Shabaab. Further underlining deepening Turkish engagement in the country, Somalia and Turkey signed defense and economic agreements earlier this month. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have trained, and continue to train, local security forces as part of a broader strategy to secure access to regional markets and to assert their control over vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
With the drawdown of the African Union sponsored “peacekeeping” mission — previously known as AMISOM but renamed ATMIS in 2022 — analysts have expressed apprehension about the expansive nature of foreign actor involvement in Somalia and the risk of Cold War-style competition fueling instability. Indeed, the foreign-sponsored training of multiple “elite” contingents of the Somali National Army (Danab, Waran, Gashaan) has prompted internal divisions within the security establishment in Somalia as it raises chain of command issues and questions about the loyalty of these units.
As Colin D. Robinson and Jahara Matisek, both regional and military experts, have said, “The only thing worse is that various Somali units become more loyal and dependent on their foreign patron, short-circuiting the political logic of having security forces that look more like hired proxies than locally organized for self-defense. This may contribute to the growing perception of Somalia becoming a hyper-competitive arena; a republic of militias if you will.”
Equally significant is the recently announced Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, a separatist region in northwestern Somalia. According to the terms of this yet-to-be signed agreement, in exchange for Somaliland granting 20km of much coveted sea access for the Ethiopian Navy for a period of 50 years, Ethiopia would formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland as an independent nation. The MoU has elicited a wave of anger among Somalis who view Ethiopia as meddling in their internal affairs — and it is precisely this history of meddling that has in the past contributed to al-Shabaab’s support base as it positions itself as the defender of Somali nationalism and autonomy.
While the U.S. State Department called for respect for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and urged dialogue in response to the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU in the name of de-escalating tensions in the region, the February 15 announcement that the U.S. intends to ramp up its involvement in Somalia is hardly an indication of a neutral stance. Rather, it is an indication of U.S. positioning in an increasingly militarized jockeying by foreign powers in this strategic but troubled country and region.
In Mogadishu, many Somalis are welcoming the U.S. announcement, perhaps in some cases hoping for job opportunities, and in others viewing the U.S. military support and presence as a potential buffer against Ethiopia. But if the past several decades of U.S. mis-adventures in Somalia are any indication, expanding U.S. involvement risks perpetuating rather than minimizing further conflict.
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SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 9, 2021) The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation on scheduled deployments to the 7th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt/Released)
The U.S. will have almost half of its aircraft carriers deployed in the Pacific in the coming weeks.
The South China Morning Post reported on February 14 that five of America’s 11 aircraft carriers would all likely soon be deployed there at the same time. Two of the carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt have been participating in a military exercise with Japan in the Philippine Sea, the USS Ronald Reagan is in port at Yokosuka, the USS Abraham Lincoln departed San Diego earlier this month, and the USS George Washington is expected to relieve the Reagan in a few weeks.
This is an unusual concentration of America’s naval power in one region at once, and it is being widely interpreted as a show of force meant for China and North Korea.
The Biden administration has made a point of making more shows of force in East Asia over the last year to reassure Asian allies that the U.S. has not forgotten about them. That isn’t surprising given the importance that the administration attaches to the “Indo-Pacific” and an active U.S. role in it, but in doing this it may also be contributing to increasing tensions with both Beijing and Pyongyang. We have already seen some of this in the back-and-forth between the U.S. and North Korea since last summer as North Korea has answered U.S. naval deployments to South Korea with additional missile tests and more bellicose rhetoric.
While these carrier deployments are presumably intended to signal American resolve and commitment to its regional allies, they could easily encourage China and North Korea to engage in their own reciprocal demonstrations of strength. They are also a reminder that the U.S. approach to East Asia is still very much a “military-first” approach that gives short shrift and devotes relatively few resources to economic statecraft and diplomacy. International relations scholar Van Jackson warned about the dangers of this approach more than two years ago, and since then the U.S. has only ramped up its military spending and deployments.
Because Washington’s attention has been focused so intently for the last four months on the war in Gaza and the other conflicts in the Middle East connected to it, it seems that the administration wants to show that it isn’t neglecting East Asia. The carrier deployments in the Pacific appear to be an attempt to “make up” for the continued massive over-investment of energy and resources in the Middle East.
The show of force may satisfy some allied governments, but it could also confirm the impression in both friendly and hostile capitals that the U.S. is overstretched and trying to take on too many tasks at the same time. The habit of reassuring allies so frequently has its own costs, including encouraging greater allied dependence, and when it is done too often it can have destabilizing effects on the wider region.
One of the principle weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is an overreliance on military deterrence. This tends to ratchet up tensions more than necessary and undermines credible assurances to adversaries. The U.S. excels at reassuring allies with its displays of military power, but because it often fails to strike a balance by giving adversaries assurances about its intentions, our government can feed the fears of Chinese and North Korean leaders and encourage them to assume the worst about what the U.S. is doing.
The carrier deployments suggest that the administration doesn’t understand the need for balancing deterrence and assurance. Failing to balance the two risks making conflict based on a miscalculation more likely. As the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine recently wrote about U.S. deterrence and Taiwan, “This balance is essential because, if the level of punishment or denial capability acquired is in fact seen as threatening the adversary’s most vital interests, the adversary, rather than being deterred from taking aggressive action, will become more inclined to undertake or threaten preemptive or punishing moves of its own in order to protect those interests, thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the chance of conflict.”
By relying so much on shows of force designed to intimidate China, the Biden administration increases the risk of a crisis.
The potential danger with North Korea is arguably even greater, since the North Korean government has a long history of responding to U.S. and allied pressure with its own provocations and threats. To the extent that Pyongyang perceives the deployment of so many carriers to the Pacific as directed even partly at North Korea, Kim Jong-un may conclude that he needs to show off his country’s own capabilities with additional missile tests and possibly even a new nuclear test.
Last year, North Korea reacted very angrily to the arrival of the USS Ronald Reagan in Busan, so it seems reasonable to expect an even harsher response if there are multiple carriers in the vicinity. Given the increasingly hostile rhetoric already coming from Pyongyang in the last few months, it would not take much for a new standoff between the U.S. and North Korea to begin.
The U.S. can ill afford a new crisis in East Asia on top of the other conflicts that it is involved in, but its overly militarized approach to the region is not the way to avoid it. If Washington wants to make conflicts in East Asia less likely, it will need to do a much better job of understanding its adversaries’ thinking and of offering them assurances that they can believe. Right now, the U.S. is doing far too little of both, and that is making the U.S. and its allies less secure than they could be.
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Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”