[Political Asylum ]Is the Media Walking Us Into Another War? (Part II) | Harper's Magazine

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A New York Times op-ed writer nods his head along with Mitt Romney.

Recently in this space, I wondered if the media was willing to walk this nation into yet another war, much as they did in meekly accepting the Bush Administration’s false allegations that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—a charge, incidentally, that many Americans still believe to this day, thanks largely to the news coverage they follow.

Now, with the press’s collective shrug over the foreign policy debate on Monday, the question becomes more urgent. Governor Romney’s amazing ignorance, indifference, and casual bellicosity on nearly every issue discussed seems to have gone largely unnoticed by our national press corps, even as it cost him the debate in the eyes of the general public.

A leading case in point was Steven Erlanger’s bizarre commentary for the New York Times. Erlanger, an experienced foreign correspondent, insisted that:

In general, there was a sense among analysts and observers outside the United States that these were two intelligent, competent candidates who do not differ overly much on the central issues of foreign policy and were actually debating with domestic constituencies in swing states foremost in mind.

In one passage, Erlanger alluded to foreign “analysts and observers” who felt Governor Romney was still an “intelligent, competent” candidate. This, despite Romney’s having proved that he didn’t know where Iran is. The passage was one of several implying that Erlanger wrote much of his dispatch before the evening’s festivities actually began. Another one was his claim that, “Not surprisingly, the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last month in Libya was an important topic . . .” In fact, quite surprisingly, it wasn’t. Romney barely mentioned it this time around.

Erlanger claimed that the two candidates said “essentially the same thing” on China—apparently missing the fact that Governor Romney clamored repeatedly that he would confront China on “day one” of his presidency by labeling it a “currency manipulator”—and that President Obama said no such thing. Erlanger wanted more about “the administration’s failed bet on former [Russian] President Dmitri A. Medvedev”—whatever that means—and chose to give heft to the Republicans’ Big Lie that the president is abandoning Israel, asserting that, “even top Obama aides concede that failing to go quickly to Israel after Cairo to make a similar speech and then calling for a ‘settlement freeze’ in East Jerusalem, instead of in the larger West Bank, were errors.”

Again, who are these “top Obama aides”? I suspect they’re as vaporous as Erlanger’s foreign “analysts and observers,” who saw no difference between the two men. What Mr. Obama also failed to do—and Erlanger failed to mention, although this did come up in the debate—was to go to Israel as part of a junket with a fabulously wealthy gaming tycoon who has been ladling money by the tens of millions into presidential campaigns because he is potentially facing indictment.

Zaniest of all was Erlanger’s assessment of the military portion of the evening, about which he wrote, “Even on the question of American military strength, there was little debate other than numbers.” Well, it would seem to me that the numbers matter a good deal when it comes to military strength. For instance, we now spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on our military budget, which has increased by nearly 34 percent since 2001. Yet Romney wants to nearly double it again, adding a ruinous $2.3 trillion over the next decade. But to Erlanger, the real problem is that the president is apparently leaving us vulnerable to our enemies:

Mr. Obama is right that the United States has more aircraft carriers than any other nation, and got off a good line about bayonets and horses and the game Battleship. But the United States is reported to have only 11 carriers, and carriers are increasingly vulnerable to more sophisticated longer-range missile attacks.

Spoken like a Romney press aide—in both its alarmism and its general ignorance.

Yes, the United States does have 11 aircraft carriers . . . in active service. Only two other nations have more than one active carrier, save for our sworn enemies . . . Spain and Italy, which for some reason each have two. We have, all in all, half of the active carriers in the world. Brazil, China, India, Russia, and Thailand each have one, and the remaining six belong to the NATO alliance. The operative word here is “active.” The United States has a total of sixty-seven carriers of the 163 that exist around the world. The United Kingdom has another forty-one, Japan has twenty. Russia has a grand total of seven, China just that one. No Arab or Islamic state has a single one.

Are carriers vulnerable to “longer-range missile attacks”? Sure. They’re vulnerable to all kinds of things. Always have been, always will be, because they’re basically just big floating landing strips. That’s why they travel in carrier groups, protected by battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and now, undoubtedly, drones and satellite surveillance.

So what would Erlanger like to see? A big debate on whether we should build or activate still more of these incredibly expensive—and highly vulnerable—ships? A debate over whether we should abandon them? Personally, I’d love to see a serious debate about what our military needs and capabilities are. But that wasn’t on the table Monday night, and that wasn’t what Romney was offering. The Republican candidate was instead repeating by rote the inane far-right talking point that “our Navy is smaller than it has been at any time since 1917.”

Whether it’s from an overwrought concern about being “objective,” or some genuine paranoia over security, the media are once again lining up behind the Republican position that no military expenditure is too large, no fear too ridiculous, no military adventure too costly. Our leading reporters owe us a more serious, good-faith effort at discerning just what threats are really out there.

is a contributing editor of <em>Harper's Magazine.</em>

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