What the Media Doesn’t Tell You about American Foreign Policy
Last week, New York University’s Susie Linfield wrote in The Atlantic that the American left’s “venomous attacks on Israel qua Israel offer a seductively easy, morally antiseptic—and, I would add, appallingly self-absorbed—way to intervene in foreign affairs.” Although she didn’t mention me by name, I suspect I may be one of the leftists she considers guilty of these sins. Which is why I’m so pleased that she’ll join our Zoom call next Thursday (sorry, one more Thursday before we return to Fridays) at Noon ET. I believe in talking publicly, and respectfully, to people who hold different views, especially on Israel-Palestine. I’m glad Susie does too. Whatever your views, I hope you’ll join us.
On October 26, The Washington Post reported on the results of a war game, convened by The Center for a New American Security (CNAS), simulating a Chinese invasion of islands controlled by Taiwan in the South China Sea. In its analysis of the simulation, the Post noted, CNAS warned that “many China-watchers” see such an invasion as “increasingly plausible.” CNAS urged the US to respond with “regular planning exercises between Taiwanese and U.S. personnel.” The Post also wrote that the CNAS report singled out Japan’s role in deterring such an attack. “Without Japan’s backing,” it declared, “the U.S. and Taiwanese negotiating position was weakened.”
The Post called CNAS “a Washington-based think tank,” which is true. What it didn’t mention is that between October 2019 and September 2020 (the most recent data on CNAS’s website), the Center received between $100,000 and $249,999 from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Taiwan’s unofficial embassy in Washington. CNAS received a donation in that same range from the Japanese embassy. It also received more than $500,000 from the weapons maker Northrup Grumman, and lesser amounts from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and various other arms manufacturers. A study last year by the Center for International Policy found that of the fifty US think tanks it analyzed, CNAS received “more funding from defense contractors than any other.”
None of this makes CNAS’ war game undeserving of coverage in The Washington Post. And none of it makes CNAS’ recommendations invalid. But it’s the kind of information Washington Post readers ought to know.
They ought to know because institutions like CNAS wield an influence that extends far beyond one report. Kurt Campbell, Joe Biden’s “Asia Czar” on the National Security Council, is CNAS’ co-founder and former board chair. Ely Ratner, who leads the China Task Force at the Pentagon, was its vice-president. Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, served on the CNAS board. Victoria Nuland, under-secretary of state for political affairs, was its CEO. As of January, eleven CNAS alums had entered the Biden administration in senior roles. The number is probably higher now.
I’m sure they all genuinely see themselves as motivated by a desire to serve the public interest. But we are all shaped by the institutions at which we work, and those institutions are shaped by the entities that pay the bills. And the people who make foreign policy in the US government don’t just come from institutions like CNAS; they often return to them when they leave. Ideologically, these think tanks help create the air that policymakers breathe.
That’s why it’s a problem when The Washington Post reports on a CNAS study without disclosing that CNAS receives money from governments and corporations with an interest in that study’s conclusions. It’s a problem because it makes Washington Post readers less able to ask critical questions when a former CNAS official enters the Biden administration or uses their position in the Biden administration to advocate a particular policy toward Taiwan, Japan or the defense budget. It denies readers information necessary to help them intelligently analyze American foreign policy.
The Post is not unique. The US media frequently offers foreign policy wonks a platform to express their views without requiring that they disclose funding by corporations or governments that might benefit from those views. That lack of disclosure makes it easier for the military-industrial complex to stealthily wield political influence, and harder for progressives to organize against it. It helps explain why the Biden administration earlier this year proposed boosting defense spending, and then saw 181 House Democrats join their Republican colleagues in voting to raise it even higher. This is despite the fact that—according to a poll last December by the Chicago Council on Public Affairs—rank-and-file Democrats are more than three times as likely to want to cut the military budget as increase it.
CNAS isn’t keeping its funding from countries like Taiwan and Japan and companies like Northrup Grumman secret. The information is on its website. But unless the media incorporates this information into its reporting, it might as well be secret. And so long as it remains effectively secret, the military-industrial complex is almost guaranteed to win.
The most devastating interview about the panic over critical race theory you’ll ever watch.
A powerful video by Salem Barahmeh about the Palestinian olive harvest in an age of settler violence.
The video of my debate last week with Bret Stephens on whether anti-Zionism constitutes antisemitism.
Goran Rosenberg, a Beinart Notebook subscriber, on the problem with the Swedish government’s definition of antisemitism.
See you Thursday (not Friday),