On Afghanistan Withdrawal, NYT’s Peter Baker Turns to Raytheon Board Member for Independent ‘Analysis’

An object lesson in how routinely corrupt "national security" reporting is.

Imagine a world where reporters are prevented from seeking “expert”––ostensibly independent––analysis, data, and maps from those on the payroll of conflicted industries. No oil and gas money funding climate change opinion, no Wall Street funding for those arguing for social security cuts, and no weapons contractor funding for those lobbying for continued or expanded war. 

Seems like a fairly simple ask, but the average media consumer is probably not aware of just how impossible the latter scenario would truly be. Defense contractor conflicts are so thoroughly sewn into the fabric of so-called “national security” reporting that if those conflicts were removed from this reporting, the vertical would, in practice, cease to exist. It would take 50,000 words to detail how many of these conflicts have revealed themselves since the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, but let’s take just one high-profile example as a good object lesson in how the game works. 

New York Times White House Correspondent Peter Baker has been demagoguing against the Afghanistan withdrawal on a daily basis for over two weeks. His reporting and Twitter timeline are a torrent of panicked quasi-editorializing over the pullout, pregnant with––but never quite birthing––what is clearly his political opinion that the withdrawal is a bad idea.

On Saturday, Baker was finally allowed to write an opinion piece where he could more openly lobby on behalf of his obvious ideological preferences. But wait––New York Times’ reporters, according to NYT ethics guidelines, “have no place on the playing fields of politics,” and on social media they are explicitly prohibited from “promoting political views.”

To get around this problem, the New York Times, a few years ago, adopted a new halfway measure between “objective” reporting and the labeled opinion column called “analysis,” where its nominally straight reporters are allowed to blur the line and editorialize so long as they launder what is obviously their personal point of view through handpicked “experts.” Baker, clearly against the Afghanistan withdrawal, did just this, using the old Fox News “some say” formula, tweeting out his “analysis” and adding:

“While some argued for alternatives, Biden saw no middle ground in Afghanistan between ending the war or endless escalation.”

“Some” argued. But not Baker, who was born without politics or ideology, a man suspended outside of space-time, simply observing the ideological struggles of mere mortals from beyond our perceptible universe. To be clear: reporters should have opinions––this isn’t in and of itself a problem. The problem is this coy game of curating other opinions and publishing them as an above the fray, impartial analysis when it’s much more honest for reporters to acknowledge they sometimes have agendas. The second issue is that Baker’s opinion, in this case, is a wrong and bad opinion. 

And who is the primary “critic” he invokes to hand-wring over Biden’s refusal to adopt this supposed “middle ground”? (The middle ground meaning the U.S. remains in Afghanistan, in clear violation of the terms agreed upon with the Taliban, but more on this later.) 

Meghan O’Sullivan, board member of US-based weapons contractor Raytheon. Baker writes:

Critics consider that either disingenuous or at the very least unimaginative, arguing that there were viable alternatives, even if not especially satisfying ones, that may not have ever led to outright victory but could have avoided the disaster now unfolding in Kabul and the provinces. 

“The administration is presenting the choices in a way that is, at best, incomplete,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush who oversaw earlier stages of the Afghan war. “No one I knew was advocating the return of tens of thousands of Americans into ‘open combat’ with the Taliban.”

Left unmentioned, because it would be super awkward to note this in her bio, is that Meghan O’Sullivan is currently on the board of directors of Raytheon––the second largest military contractor in the U.S., billing the Pentagon over $27 billion a year (greater than the entire annual military budget of Canada or Israel), including a $145 million contract to train Afghan Air Force pilots—a contract that was, presumably, adversely affected this week. 

O’Sullivan, as Eli Clifton noted in The Daily Beast last February, “received $940,000 in cash and stock from the defense contractor between 2017 and 2019.” O’Sullivan, as a board member of Raytheon, has a Duty of Care and Duty of Loyalty to advance the interests of her firm. As such, it’s not entirely clear O’Sullivan is even permitted to support a full withdrawal given how invested in continued occupation her company is. 

Baker also reports criticism from Gen. David H. Petraeus, retired commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, as well as former director of the CIA. “There was an alternative that could have prevented further erosion and likely enabled us to roll back some of the Taliban gains in recent years,” Petraeus tells Baker, adding: “​​With the Afghans doing the fighting on the front lines and the U.S. providing assistance from the air, such a force posture would have been quite sustainable in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure.”

But as Ryan Grim, Sara Sirota, Lee Fang, Rose Adams reported for The Intercept on August 19, Petraeus is also conflicted: He “serves on the board of Optiv Security, a large cybersecurity firm that contracts with the Department of Defense, and is a partner at KKR and Co. a global private equity firm with assets in the defense sector.” Petraeus also has another major conflict of interest: He played a huge part in escalating the war by unleashing the infamous counter-insurgency strategy, increasing night raids and bombings, and loosening rules meant to protect civilians. If anyone has an interest in making the war in Afghanistan appear worth fighting, it’s one of its primary architects.

Two other “critics' supportive of a “middle ground” cited, current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (whose preferences we learn from anonymous leaks) and former Defense Secretary under Trump, Mark Esper, are Raytheon alums. Lloyd is a former board member of Raytheon, and Mark Esper was a long time lobbyist for Raytheon. Esper is also a current board member of two different defense contractors, Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions and Epirus Inc, that manufactures drones and direct energy weapons.

Esper is the only source that comes close to giving a sense of what this “middle ground” would actually look like. Baker cites a recent CNN interview the longtime Raytheon lobbyist gave Christiane Amanpour: “[Biden] could have tried to go back to the table with the Taliban and renegotiate. He could have demanded, as I argued, that they agree to the conditions they established or they agreed to in the agreement and that we use military power to compel them to do that.”

So the middle ground is just… reneging on the deal with the Taliban and effectively restarting direct conflict? But worry not––it would just be a “light” reneging with a “light” force left behind. Something the Taliban would have, presumably, just rolled with. Baker isn’t arguing for a “middle ground” in any meaningful sense: He’s arguing to continue the U.S. occupation with new branding and “light footprint” euphemisms, and using military-contractor-funded sources to make the case for him. Indeed, the only two on-the-record sources he cites specifically advocating for a “middle ground” are a current Raytheon board member and an ex-Raytheon lobbyist. 

The most glib––and baffling––line of editorializing is when Baker seeks to downplay the risks:

Fewer than 100 American troops died in combat in Afghanistan over the past five years, roughly the equivalent of the number of Americans currently dying from Covid-19 every two hours.” 

Oh well, never mind then. Covid has changed the calculus of war: more plague deaths, more combat deaths, it’s just 1/12th a Covid Day unit. 

What does this even mean? 177 children died in school shootings from 2009 to 2019, Baker should definitely reach out to all their families letting them know the problem is only 3.6 hours of Covid deaths. Never mind the 8,820 Afghan civilian deaths last year caused by the conflict don't appear to matter much in Baker’s cost-benefit analysis, such that it is. 

Last week, Baker wrote another heavily editorialized “analysis” repeatedly implying—and sometimes outright asserting—Biden was being incompetent and capricious, using a similar cheeky “critics say” framing. It’s clear, from reading that piece, or this week’s piece, or his Twitter timeline, that, to any honest observer, Baker very much has a point of view; an end game, a policy preference. A political position. But Baker assured us in The Times last year that he, like the great King Solomon, is without prejudice:

“As reporters, our job is to observe, not participate, and so to that end, I don’t belong to any political party, I don’t belong to any non-journalism organization, I don’t support any candidate, I don’t give money to interest groups and I don’t vote. I try hard not to take strong positions on public issues even in private, much to the frustration of friends and family. For me, it’s easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong.”

We know Baker has no biases because he so aggressively insists he does not, to the point where he allegedly has never aired a political position in his own kitchen (a tedious Covid lockdown with the family, no doubt). But clearly Baker has an opinion on this particular topic and it’s silly for adults to pretend he doesn’t.

To affirm his ideological preference that the U.S. should have stayed in Afghanistan, he just cherry picked a handful of deeply-conflicted weapons contractor-funded hawks who have both financial incentive and personal ass-covering motive to dump on Biden and push this mysterious “middle ground.” The result is a write up that serves as more of an object lesson on how much influence Raytheon has on national security reporters than a workable, good faith account of what some third-way alternative may or may not have actually looked like. The details of which we never really learn because, in all likelihood, the “third way” was really just a repackaged first way—staying in Afghanistan in perpetuity.

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