Almost every would-be GOP nominee has made an issue of America’s declining naval strength. This morning The Washington Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee gave “three Pinocchios” to Lindesy Graham and Scott Walker for recalling Ronald Reagan’s 600 ship Navy and deploring our drop to 273 ships today.
Not only does Ms. Lee suggest untruthfulness about these absolutely factual assertions by Graham and Walker, she does so without finding even one expert who challenges their assertions about U.S. naval strength hitting dangerous lows. She joined me to defend her conclusion, but I wasn’t persuaded and believe the Post should issue a correction for putting out as a “fact check” a thinly disguised and actually poorly informed opinion of one of its writers. I appreciate that Ms. Lee would come on to defend her piece but this issue is too important to leave to the “fact checkers” who aren’t actually checking facts:
HH: I am now pleased to welcome, the first time on the Hugh Hewitt Show, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, who is a Washington Post reporter. Michelle, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program.
MYHL: Hi, thanks for having me.
HH: You have created quite a stir today with your piece, The Zombie Claim About Navy Ship Numbers Returns To The 2016 Campaign Trail. I was talking about it last hour with Governor Pataki. He and a bunch of other Republicans just simply reject your three Pinocchios. So would you please explain to the audience what is the zombie nature of the claim that Republicans are making about naval strength?
MYHL: Sure. So this was a claim that Romney had said during the last presidential campaign, and so when it came back up, you know, I was looking back at the analyses that had been done, and sort of revisiting that leading up to the 2016 cycle. So a lot of the criticism back then was that you know, instead of comparing the sheer number of ships a hundred years ago to now, you know, there are other ways to try to make the argument that you know, Romney was trying to make. And so I was getting at that, and you know, I revisited the issue, and remained consistent with the rating that we had given Romney then with the three Pinocchios.
HH: Now why do you call it a zombie claim? Because every naval expert I’ve talked to believes we’re in a crisis when it comes to ship count and strategic ability to project force, every single one. And as I read your piece, I didn’t actually find anyone disagreeing with Lindsey Graham or Scott Walker.
MYHL: Well, the zombie claim is sort of a reader-friendly way to describe that this is something that had been talked about in the past, and that it had been challenged in the past as well. And you know, we sort of use it to say hey, you know, we’ve been there before, we’ll say it again. So that’s sort of a reader-friendly way to put it that way. You know, I don’t think it’s that people disagree necessarily with the claim that there needs to be more ships, or that the current fleet is not sufficient compared to what the combatant commanders say they need. But it’s, again, going back to the idea that you know, the needs of, the need and capability of ships evolve over time. So to compare the number of ships in 2015 versus the number of ships in 1915, ’16, ’17 or in the 1980s is just not an apples to apples comparison.
HH: Now I’m going to disagree with you. I want to be respectful here, but I was around in 1980, and when President Reagan campaigned for a 600 ship Navy, he was saying we need a much larger Navy to meet a strategic challenge. When you quote Lindsey Graham and Scott Walker today, and George Pataki said to me last hour, they’re saying we’ve given away strategic advantage. So I think it is apples to apples, and I’d go specifically to, for example, are you familiar with the Ohio Class submarine, Michelle.
HH: And so do you know how many we had when Ronald Reagan took over?
MYHL: I don’t know the exact figure.
HH: Zero. Zip. He invented them. And so he deployed two dozen of them. Now, they’re all going to age out by 2025-2030.
HH: So isn’t that the same kind of strategic challenge we didn’t have a modern strategic ballistic submarine and we’re going to not have another one again in fifteen years? So these candidates are actually saying apples to apples, we need a strategic submarine and we aren’t going to have one?
MYHL: Well, right, okay, going back to those submarines that NDA, the retiring and the decommissioning of them, you know, there is that happening right now, because the lifespan of some of these ships are about 20-30 years. So we have more ships being decommissioned than are being built. And you know, that’s something that all the experts that I’ve talked to have agreed, and said you know, it’s going to be really difficult to try to rebuild to that level as then, because that’s just not the way it is now. And you know, the strategic challenges, I think that’s an important point to raise. And I think there are ways to point to that without saying hey, we need the 600 ships that we had back then, or look at how many we have compared to the 600 ships we had then.
HH: But Michelle, if I can pause for a moment…
HH: Has anyone said we need 600 ships, because I haven’t heard, I’ve interviewed every Republican candidate. None of them have said anything remotely like that. They all want like 250-260 ships. They haven’t said 600. They were talking about the 600 ship Navy as emblematic of strategic need not being met.
HH: So I actually think it’s apples to apples. But am I wrong? Did anyone say we need 600 ships?
MYHL: I actually did talk to someone who said that they would love to see 600 ships.
HH: Who said that? A candidate?
MYHL: No, it was one of the experts that I’d interviewed for the Fact Check. And you know, I understand the emblematic aspect of this. You know, I get that, that it’s a shorthand way to say that you know, look at the levels we had back then, look at the levels we have now. It just, you know, it’s much lower. And if you look at the numbers, yes, it is. And I think most people agree that, I think you have about 250, but I think the number that people are using now is about 346 or so?
HH: Yeah, I misspoke. We would like to be at 350. We’re at 273.
HH: Yeah, I misspoke.
MYHL: Right, which is fine. If that’s the way that the issue is portrayed, you know, that would be pointing at a specific number that the combatant commanders themselves have said.
HH: But that’s…
MYHL: So you know, my…
HH: That’s what the candidates actually did, though. I mean, I read Lindsey Graham’s and Scott Walker’s comments, and Scott Walker specifically said look, we’re at 275-280. That’s less than half of where we were under Reagan.
HH: You look at other components out there, there’s some real challenges for us. I don’t know how that gets three, I think it’s a disservice to the public to say three Pinocchios when it fact they’re pointing to a strategic deficit every bit as real in 2015 as it was in 1979.
MYHL: Well, I don’t think we’re going to come to an agreement here, but again, you know, the point that we were trying to make is that you know, yes, you can make the comparison to the levels that they were in the 1980s, but that’s not a direct comparison, right?
HH: But it is.
MYHL: Is there a need for a 600 ship Navy right now? And that is something that you can talk about or not, but it’s just, you know…
HH: But it is a direct comparison, because right now, we’re spending less than 3% GDP on our military. Reagan spent 6% of GDP on military. So there’s this huge missile gap, this strategic gap. And missile gap is shorthand for what Kennedy ran on. Let me ask you, Michelle, have you read Robert Kaplan’s Asia’s Cauldron?
HH: It goes deep into the PRC’s new naval technology, the new challenges of shore to ship missiles, all these different things. But the number of ship bottoms simply can’t go below what the Quadrennial Defense Report has, and I think you noted in your article…
HH: …we need to be at least 323. So I, just explain to me how you can recognize that we have a strategic deficit, we need at least 323 ships, we’re at 273 ships, and then slam Republicans who call for a bigger Navy.
MYHL: Well, I think there are two different things that you’re getting at there. To say that we are below what the QDR, you know, based on the analysis of the QDR, what that recommended, and then, as you said, slamming Republicans, you know, the point that I was trying to make, and I’m trying to make now, is that you know, if you’re trying to make the point that it’s below the recommended levels, just say that. No need to say you know, what the level is now compared to what it was in 1915, or what the level is now compared to what it was in the 1980s. I think you can still make the same point using what the panel’s review…
HH: But isn’t that, what my point is, that’s an editorial judgment. That’s a political opinion. You and I disagree. That’s not a fact, because I think we should use the 600 ship Navy, because that was Reagan’s way of saying strategic deficit, we have…the ocean hasn’t gotten smaller, Michelle. We need a lot of ship bottoms out there. Maybe we don’t need 600, but we need a whole lot more than we’ve got. We’ve got a strategic deficit. Now you might disagree with me on that. But when you do fact checking, my problem with this is, is you’re asserting that they lied when you use Pinocchio. And they didn’t lie. You just disagree, and perhaps they have a knowledge advantage over you, for example, as with regards to the Ohio Class submarines or aircraft carriers or ship bottoms. Is that not a legitimate point of view for me to have?
MYHL: Well, I don’t think this has anything to do with my personal point of view. That’s not where I’m coming at this from. You know, to a certain extent, when you give a Pinocchio rating, you’re going to disagree. You and I are going to disagree. Other people and I will probably disagree. But you try to assess it on a consistent level using the same standards that you have done before. And that’s all I did in this case.
MYHL: And you know, no worries. If Hillary repeats a lie that Obama used in the last campaign, we’ll be consistent with her as well.
HH: No, but that’s not, the point is if you were wrong four years ago, you’re still wrong today. And to assert Pinocchios is to assert they’re lying, isn’t it?
MYHL: That it’s not the truth.
HH: And it is. And what Walker and Graham said is the truth. So I just think you’re editorializing under the guise of fact checking, and it’s a strategic, this is very important stuff, right? Our naval strength is very important. Should the Post be editorializing as opposed to just putting it on the opinion page, which I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to disagree and say hey, we’re not that small. That would be fine. But I mean, to argue Pinocchios, you’re putting it in a different category, aren’t you?
MYHL: I don’t think so. You know, I don’t agree with that. I’m not here to editorialize. I’m not trying to opine. I am trying to do my job of putting these numbers into context, trying to shed extra information to put them into context, and that’s what I aimed to do.
HH: I appreciate you coming on, Michelle Ye Hee Lee. Come back again. I love talking to Dan Balz and Philip Rucker, but I, this is a swing and a miss. I’d have to give you four Pinocchios on this story, but that would be my opinion, not a fact. Michelle Ye Hee Lee, thank you.
End of interview.