The Wall Street Journal's Disclosure Issue: Bolton Edition

In the Wall Street Journal, John Bolton parroted a clear Romney campaign falsehood that the U.S. Navy under President Obama is as weak as it was in World War I. Furthermore, in publishing the op-ed, the Journal did not disclose Bolton's position as an adviser to Mitt Romney.

The Journal's failure to disclose Bolton's interest fits with the paper's pattern of printing columns by Karl Rove attacking President Obama without acknowledging that Rove co-founded and runs a super PAC devoted to defeating Obama.

In a September 10, Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bolton claimed that China is becoming increasingly aggressive towards its neighbors in the Pacific Ocean because of Obama administration policies. He claimed that the United States should reverse Obama's policies, in part, by “rapidly rebuild America's Navy.” Bolton went on to claim: “Today we have about 285 warships at sea, a scarcity of vessels not seen since World War I.”

The suggestion that the Navy is as weak as it was in World War I echoes untrue arguments advanced by Romney himself. During a Republican presidential debate, Romney claimed, “Our Navy is smaller than it's been since 1917” and suggested that Obama was to blame.

However, Politifact declared that claim false, reporting that a University of Georgia historian said such a claim “doesn't pass 'the giggle test' ” because our Navy is clearly stronger than it was in World War I. Moreover, the number of Navy ships declined in every year of President George W. Bush's second term, but has increased under Obama.

Politifact explained:

Counting the number of ships or aircraft is not a good measurement of defense strength because their capabilities have increased dramatically in recent decades. Romney's comparison “doesn't pass 'the giggle test,' ” said William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia.

Consider what types of naval ships were used in 1916 and 2011. The types of ships active in both years, such as cruisers and destroyers, are outfitted today with far more advanced technology than what was available during World War I. More importantly, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers (plus the jets to launch from them), 31 amphibious ships, 14 submarines capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles and four specialized submarines for launching Cruise missiles -- all categories of vessels that didn't exist in 1916.


[M]ost experts we spoke to felt that Romney's critique was misguided. [Commonwealth Institute expert Charles] Knight went so far as to offer this reply:

“If Mr. Romney wants a truly stark example of diminished military capability, he should compare today's horse cavalry to that in 1917, or even 1941 when there were still 15 active horse-cavalry regiments in the Army. Today there has been total disarmament of horse cavalry,' he might say, 'leaving our nation defenseless in this regard.' His chosen comparisons are almost as absurd.”

Politifact also reported that the number of Navy ships peaked during the Korean war, but that has been “followed by a slow, consistent decline over the next five decades.” Politifact added:

[D]uring the years 2005 to 2008, the number of active ships was 282, 281, 278 and 282, respectively -- each of which were below the levels of 2009, 2010 and 2011. In other words, each of the final four years under George W. Bush saw lower levels of active ships than any of the three years under Obama. The number of surface warships also bottomed out in 2005 under Bush, later rising by about 10 percent under Obama.

Editorial page editors have harshly criticized the Journal for publishing Rove's columns without disclosing his ties to anti-Obama organizations. The newspaper's decision to publish an op-ed by Bolton that echoed a Romney falsehood without even disclosing Bolton's role in the Romney campaign is another example of this ethics problem.