Yesterday’s New York Times featured a long article detailing Russian arms sales to the contested regime in Syria. It described video footage of “vintage Soviet tanks” rolling through the city of Homs and satellite images released by the State Department showing “deployments of Soviet-designed truck-mounted rocket launchers and two models of a self-propelled howitzer,” and so on. It talks about Moscow’s sales to Russia over the years including “MIG fighter jets, attack helicopters and high-tech air defense systems” and how “from 2007 to 2010, the value of Russian arms deals with Syria more than doubled — to $4.7 billion from $2.1 billion — compared with 2003 to 2006.” And even as the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad “turns his guns on his own citizens, and the death toll mounts,” the Russian government has “forcefully pushed back against any suggestion of an arms embargo against Syria.”
Funny, I can’t recall such an intricate accounting in the New York Times of U.S. arms sales to dictatorships killing their own people in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, and beyond. Russia is managing a classic client state relationship with the brutal Syrian regime, but I honestly can’t remember the New York Times so adamantly reporting America’s management of brutal client states. The Paper of Record doesn’t deny them or even ignore them, but such facts are typically mentioned only in passing, within an article about some other not-so-damnning aspect of the client state in question.
Even before the region-wide Arab Spring protests, Amnesty International published a release in September 2010 about how the Saleh dictatorship in Yemen had been rolling back human rights as U.S. military aid increased. And as hundreds of corpses of unarmed protesters began to pile up in 2011, we had to find out from leaked classified State Department cables that the weapons being used against protesters were from the U.S., including shotguns, machine guns, ammunition, grenade launchers, body armor, communications equipment, warships, transport trucks, other unspecified killing machinery, and attentive military-to-military training. I can remember a lot of Times articles mentioning Yemen as receiving important U.S. support for “counterterrorism,” but I do not recall an entire article on U.S. military aid to a deadly regime.
In Bahrain, the U.S. has sent military aid despite harsh repression of largely peaceful protests, including dozens of American tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships, riot gear, thousands of .38 caliber pistols and millions of rounds of ammunition, from .50 caliber rounds used in sniper rifles and machine guns to bullets for handguns. After international condemnation of Obama’s support for the dictatorship, the administration jumped through legal loopholes to send Bahrain an additional arms package that, once complete, may include armored vehicles, high-tech TOW and bunker buster missiles, anti-tank rocket launchers, and tens of millions of dollars of spare parts and military communications equipment. Very few details of this in the New York Times. Finally in December, columnist Nicholas Kristoff did cover this, but I noted at the time that this was (1) a surprise, (2) very late, and (3) specifically not a piece of news that the editorial staff decided to cover, but a Opinion Editorial.
The U.S. had a long and militarized relationship with the recently ousted regime in Egypt. Mubarak was our closest ally for decades, supported enthusiastically by Obama until the very last second, and had elaborate and professionalized programs for torture and repression which U.S. leadership ignored for years. Such support has continued for the military junta now in charge. In December, Amnesty International revealed that the “U.S. has repeatedly transferred ammunition to Egypt despite security forces’ violent crackdown on protesters” including one in November “carrying at least seven tons of “ammunition smoke” – which includes chemical irritants and riot control agents such as tear gas” and another in April with “21 tons of ammunition” and still another in August with “another shipment of 17.9 tons of ammunition.” This, at a time when “Egyptian government responded to protests by using excessive and often lethal force.” Did this warrant an entire article in the Times, perhaps?
I could go on this way (Iraq, Pakistan, Israel, etc.). The point is this: the country’s leading newspaper isn’t obligated to expose its own government’s support for tyranny, but when other states do it, a full investigation is published. For reasons talked about here and here, the news media reflects the state’s foreign policy interests (those interests are often one and the same with those of the media establishment). This can be gleaned even from just a cursory look; it should be a truism. But its not.