Photo: Courtesy of William Arkin
It’s not often that a TV news commentator’s resignation creates a stir. William Arkin, a military analyst at NBC News for 30 years, is a notable exception. In an impassioned open letter announcing his exit earlier this month, Arkin — a nuclear weapons expert, onetime soldier, and co-author of a groundbreaking Washington Post series about America’s national security bureaucracy — railed against reflexive jingoism on TV news, despaired of the “Trump circus” that dominates coverage, and disparaged top U.S. military brass — whom he calls “frauds.” Intelligencer spoke with Arkin about how America’s wars should be covered on television, and why he thinks President Trump doesn’t get enough credit for his unorthodox foreign policy.
In your letter, you wrote that you had appreciated your time at the network, but that you think it has consistently glorified the idea of perpetual wars, privileged military expertise over civilians, and has not adequately reported the “failures of American generals and national security leaders.” In your view, what would a healthier approach to covering America’s foreign entanglements look like?
First of all, whatever it is that I diagnosed, whatever I observed at NBC, applies universally in the mainstream. We have to admit that. It’s not like somehow MSNBC, because it’s quote the “liberal network,” has a set of liberal generals that it can employ, and Fox, being a conservative network, has a set of conservatives that it can employ. And yet they both do that. But we never are let in on the joke, which is: Do generals have partisan political views? Because if we start to believe that, the idea that expertise is driving what they say begins to fall apart.
Most insiders in the military would say that the proper role of the soldier is to be completely nonpartisan. That horse left the barn a long time ago, but we’re still left with the notion that somebody who formerly wore the uniform, or was an ambassador or an assistant secretary, is above partisanship, and that somehow we should be listening to them purely for their insight and expertise.
So that’s problem number one. Problem number two is: Who are these people? They are the architects of the past 20 years of warfare, which has yielded, in my mind, no positive results. And yet we’re looking to them to offer their recommendations on what we should do in Syria or Afghanistan or Russia. And to tell you the God’s honest truth, I think I could go to any bar in New York City and line three people sitting up at the bar and probably, with the proper questioning, get just as intelligent answers.
This is all to say that that idiot Donald Trump’s intuition is right: that Washington is the problem, that the swamp is for real, that there is a deep state.
The foreign policy blob, as Ben Rhodes would call it?
Yeah. But that perspective is a little too raw for the rarefied world of mainstream television, and so we tend to shy away from that. Now, that’s not to say that the Glenn Greenwalds and Julian Assanges of the world have any more of the answer than the generals, but I believe they have a right to be heard.
The middle ground would be including true civilian experts and true analysis of reality. We can have the opportunity for General X to speak and for Glenn Greenwald to speak, but there’s a voice in the middle that’s factual and historic and uncompromising in its truth.
I’m a little confused as to why the dynamic you describe is still the dominant one on a network like MSNBC. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was obviously a huge public appetite to prosecute the war or terrorism, get more involved in the Middle East without asking many questions, and so on. I don’t feel like that appetite is there anymore. I don’t think most Americans are enthusiastic about keeping troops in Afghanistan, for instance. But interventionism is still often the default position on TV. Why do you think it has such staying power?
What I said in my letter was that this is actually the product of what we do. If you do not make an intentional effort to have a diversity of voices, if you don’t make the intentional effort to fill that panel with a range of views, then let’s be honest about what the unintended consequences are.
The point I’m making is I think that the voices become more and more limited, and more and more snappy. And if I say to somebody, “Why don’t we have more academics on the air,” the answer is that they’re long-winded and they can’t give good sound bites. And it’s like “fuck you,” you know? Then train them to be better on television. Don’t just cut them out of the debate. What I’m identifying is inadvertent result of television becoming so overproduced and expert and quick.
I’m just not sure that at a time of prosperity for the mainstream media that anyone is sitting back and saying, “What are we communicating and are we communicating it enough? Are we providing enough nourishment and are we doing our duty, our sacred duty to inform the public?” I think the answer right now is a resounding no, and I think that’s why my letter has gotten such a gratifying response and seems to have touched so many nerves.
We have this double problem that (a) the Trump circus is all that we talk about, and then (b) the voices that speak about the Trump circus are the same voices over and over again.
It’s a problem across media, because it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise with Trump. And he’s the president, so we do have to cover him …
But I’d also like to see an equal number of stories about how powerless he is and how incompetent he is. Some of those stories should provide a little bit of comfort the American people and others around the world, that Trump is not going to blow up the planet, and that in fact he’s a powerless phony. Yet if every day everyone’s hair is on fire, then that message doesn’t get across.
Print media seems to be better at that aspect of things.
Well, I don’t know. I’ve worked at both the Washington Post and the New York Times, and friends there tell me that the phenomena, though not as extreme as it is on cable television, is the same. That is, if you’re not in the Trump inner circle, reporting on the White House, then you’re not in the inner circle of the newspaper anymore.
When I first started at the Post, the national security reporters reporting on actual military affairs were the elite. Now you couldn’t probably even name me a Pentagon correspondent, That’s how invisible they’ve become. We don’t report on war. We report on Washington.
So I think that there has been a change. But really the thing that I think is most dangerous is what I refer to as “inadvertent products.” If the inadvertent product is that war is just perpetual and there’s no solution for it; if the inadvertent product is that everything is a horse race, everything is a partisan issue, then the end result is a poor informing of the public and a kind of immobilization of power on the part of people in terms of their ability to influence things.
Has this all gotten worse in the last 30 years?
Oh, definitely. Yeah.
I mean, look, as I said in my own letter, I’m an annoying guy. This is not the first time I’ve left NBC. But I think that what has gotten worse is the rapidity with which response has to now take place.
If we recognize that 2000 was the beginning of the cable news hegemony, we’re now in the social-media hegemony, and it’s even more powerful than cable news. Cable news is barely keeping up with social media, and maybe something else will come to replace that as well. So there has been a change in the world, but I don’t think it’s Trump. I think it’s social media.
You also wrote that NBC — and I think this applies to other networks — is wrong to automatically position itself against possibly sensible Trump initiatives, like the Syrian troop withdrawal or meeting with Kim Jong-un. But how much of the pushback is a result of anti-Trump animus and how much of it just makes sense, given the president’s consistently haphazard execution of these ideas? With North Korea, he hasn’t really gotten any concessions out of Kim Jong-un, which is exactly what experts predicted. And the Syria withdrawal has been chaotic so far — hastily announced, and there are conflicting messages from all his advisers. Isn’t it a fool’s errand to give him the benefit of the doubt on anything at this point?
Yes and no. Let’s look at Korea specifically. I think you’re absolutely wrong in saying that we got nothing out of Korea. There were nuclear tests held under the Obama administration. North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon under the Trump administration. The last long-range missile test was conducted in November 2017, so you’re wrong. Somehow, either Trump scared the bejeesus out of the North Koreans through all of his pompous overstatement, or the North Koreans made the correct assessment that maybe this president could do anything and they backed away.
Okay, maybe not nothing. But there hasn’t be a cessation of the nuclear buildup or the kind of thing that he was promising would happen under his …
You know what? If it’s either eight more years of what was achieved during the Obama administration, which was nothing — or an attempt at figuring out how we might slow the pace and even end the development of the nuclear arsenal on the part of North Korea, which by the way is in the interests of both South Korea and China, so let them take the lead — I think that what we’re incompetently and inattentively pursuing under Trump is better than the status quo. And I might even go one step further and say that President Hillary Clinton might have put us in a worse place.
On North Korea, you mean. Not generally.
On North Korea. But I would certainly think on Russia, too. I certainly think in Syria it could be the case. I also know that when Trump says “get the U.S. forces out of Syria,” it resonates with the American public, that there’s a strain of both fatigue and strong isolationism in American society that’s completely out of touch with what Washington believes.
That’s pretty clear at this point, I think.
Yeah. And so again, I’m not necessarily arguing that Trump demands more favorable coverage or any of that. I mean, I called him an imbecile in my letter. He does not have the ability to implement anything. But I do at the same time think that when Mr. Magoo walks across the girder from one skyscraper to another we should at least recognize that he did it.
The quickness with which the elite is willing to dismiss him — and this covers a very broad political spectrum, from Rachel Maddow all the way to the weirdo Tony Shaffer at Fox News — I mean, they all agree. And when they all agree, that makes me really nervous.
You argued that the national security Establishment, which we’ve talked about quite a bit, has become even more impervious to criticism under Trump, But it does seem to me that there is a bit of a political shift happening. The Democratic Party isn’t exactly revolutionary on this issue, but it does seem increasingly unafraid to criticize a lot of the facets of militaristic foreign and domestic policy, whether that’s continued American support for Saudi Arabia, ICE tactics, or defense spending. There’s less need to be seen as tough by conservative voters than there was ten years ago. Do you see any hope in that trend?
Well, I think you’re right. I would say let’s give a little bit of credit to Donald Trump, at least when he was on the campaign trail.
Once again, we’re not giving him his due!
I mean, look, he called the military a bunch of incompetents, and then all of a sudden he became president and it was like “my generals say …”
He’s all over the place.
Yeah. So if he’s an idiot, we’ll accept that. But on the other hand, you know, as a Republican Party presidential candidate, he criticized the military and no one seemed to really question his patriotism. So that door was indeed opened.
But here’s the problem with your characterization. When we criticize ICE, there’s no name attached to it. When we criticize the Pentagon, there’s no name attached to it. When we talk about the problems of Saudi Arabia, there’s no real name attached to it. So what happens at the same time is that maybe we’ve made a little bit of sport out of our ability to take potshots at the national security Establishment, but we don’t attach any names to it.
I’ll give you a little anecdote. The week before Christmas, James Mattis resigned as secretary of Defense, and that morning I walked into the newsroom and very loudly said, “I’ll give $100 to anyone who can tell me one thing that James Mattis has done as secretary of Defense.” And there was a sea of silence.
I think he’s most famous for the things he prevented Trump from doing.
Okay. That’s the theory. Now let’s unpack that, okay? So he should merely be known because he put his finger on the button so that Trump couldn’t get there. And yet, who is he? What does he believe?
If I look at it, I say to myself, we’re in as bad a position as we are in all those countries as when Trump took office, and there’s no real reason to believe that Mattis, with his experience fighting the first Iraq War and the second Iraq War, and Afghanistan, and being the commander-in-chief of the Central Command — that he did anything that ended a battle, started a battle, ended a war. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
These guys are frauds. They are very good at doing what they do, but they are not the civilian leaders we need, who have broader visions of what’s required. Now let me make clear: I believe in a strong military. I believe that the military should be the military. And I believe that the military should be the military because I also believe in strong civilians.
I want the military populated with people like Curtis LeMay, who really want to destroy things. I don’t want it populated with a bunch of guys who are so conversant in the ways of Washington that they can passive-aggressively defeat any attempts to change anything. That’s what happened in the Obama administration, by the way.
I want a strong military, and I want strong civilian leaders. If I’m the president, I want to ask the general, “What are the options?,” and I hope to hell he says, “Bomb the crap out of them.” And I want to be able to go to a civilian who says, “Yes, we can bomb the crap out of them, but here’s the implications of it.” And now the president has gotten both views.
But I think what happens instead is that the civilian and the military guys who sit at the table these days are just negotiating what the color of the bombs are. They’re not really having the debate. I want to have the debate. So in order to have the debate, we need to have strong civilians in civilian roles. That means real civilians populating the office of the secretary of Defense, real civilians being the national security adviser, the Director of National Intelligence, et cetera.
Now, did Trump start this problem? Hell no. Who was Obama’s director of National Intelligence? Admiral Blair. And who was Obama’s national security adviser? Jim Jones, retired Marine Corps General. This did not start with Trump. But I think there has been a failure since 9/11, since the global war on terrorism, since perpetual war has become perpetual, that the civilian world of academic experts, of experts, et cetera, have either become so marginalized, that we don’t have a true civilian perspective.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.