Apr
01
2007

Hyping the Venezuela Threat

To NYT, ‘arms spending’ doesn't mean spending on arms

A report in the New York Times on Venezuela’s international arms purchases (“Venezuela Spending on Arms Soars to World’s Top Ranks,” 2/25/07) used selective information and an alarmist tone to suggest that Venezuela’s military spending was a potential threat to regional stability. Reporter Simon Romero’s story began:

Venezuela’s arms spending has climbed to more than $4 billion in the past two years, transforming the nation into Latin America’s largest weapons buyer and placing it ahead of other major purchasers in international arms markets like Pakistan and Iran.

By putting Venezuela in the company of Pakistan and Iran—whose military programs have attracted global suspicion—the report was clearly intended to frighten readers about Venezuela’s military designs.

But there are several problems with this piece. First of all, as the article reveals further down, it was based on information provided by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. The Pentagon has a well-earned credibility problem when it comes to making intelligence claims about the threats posed by official enemies, and the fact that it was the source of the article’s assertions should have been mentioned in the lead.

The article also used a confusing and highly misleading measure of arms expenditures. Its phrase “Venezuela’s arms spending” does not mean the amount Venezuela spends on arms, but rather the amount that it spends buying arms from other countries. If one is interested in the military threat posed by a particular country, its total spending on its military is a more relevant statistic; indeed, all other things being equal, a country that has to buy most of its weapons from overseas might be seen as less of a threat than a country with a large domestic arms industry.

But it’s clear why the Defense Intelligence Agency would stress overseas arms purchases as a gauge of Venezuela’s military potential: When one looks at the more comprehensive figure of total military spending, Venezuela does not seem to constitute much of a threat at all. In Latin America, according to figures compiled by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Argentina spends almost twice as much on its military as Venezuela, Colombia spends more than three times as much, and Brazil spends about 12 times as much.

Iran and Pakistan, whose overseas arms purchases the New York Times compares to Venezuela’s, spend much more on their military overall than Venezuela does as well. The United States, as the world’s biggest military power, has a military budget roughly 500 times the size of Venezuela’s—whose military spending is ranked 63rd. None of this crucial context made it into Romero’s piece, though the article does note, in the 19th of 26 paragraphs, that Brazil’s army is far larger than Venezuela’s.

But the article may be inaccurate as well as misleading. Though it claimed that Venezuela’s $4 billion in arms purchases over the last two years eclipsed Pakistan’s weapons spending, the Times reported just a few months ago (11/11/06) that Pakistan had “placed a $5 billion order for advanced F-16 jets made by the Lockheed Martin Corporation.” Pakistan would seem to have outspent Venezuela on the international arms market in a single deal with the American company. In the February 25 piece, Romero cited an estimate from the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency that claimed Pakistan had spent just $3 billion over the past two years, which is obviously at odds with the Times’ report from November, which was also based on Pentagon data.

The Times’ numbers on Venezuelan military spending don’t seem to add up, either. The article reported that Venezuela’s total military budget was $1.3 billion in 2004, “the last year for which comparative data were immediately available.” (This is slightly more than the figure given by the Center for Arms Control and Nonpro-liferation.) It also said that Venezuela’s overseas arms spending was $4.3 billion over the past two years, and that it was up 12.5 percent in 2006. That would mean the country bought slightly more than $2 billion in weapons abroad in 2005.

But according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Venezuela’s total military spending in 2005 was $1.477 billion. SIPRI’s data also has Venezuela’s military budget for that year—the latest year listed—as smaller than it spent in 1997, the year before Hugo Chávez, Washington’s bete noire, was first elected president. (According to SIPRI, Venezuela’s military spent $1.65 billion in 1997—and that was 1.8 percent of Venezuela’s GDP, vs. 1.2 percent for the country’s 2004 arms budget.)

Why was this information, which seems to contradict the anonymous claims of Pentagon officials, not shared with New York Times readers? Perhaps because it would undermine the article’s entire point.