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The Perils of Threat Inflation

Stephen Walt sees [1] the U.S. repeating past mistakes in its war on ISIS. The first mistake he identifies is the tendency to exaggerate foreign threats:

Why is threat inflation a problem? When we exaggerate dangers in order to sell a military [action], we are more likely to do the wrong thing instead of taking the time to figure out if a) action is really necessary and b) what the best course of action might be.

It’s fair to say that U.S. officials wouldn’t have to exaggerate foreign threats so often if military action were clearly necessary. The U.S. is an extraordinarily secure country, so it requires an extraordinary amount of dishonesty and exaggeration to convince Americans that launching attacks overseas is necessary for our security. Government officials have to overstate threats from overseas in order to justify military action that they all know isn’t strictly necessary, and so they also overstate how many interests the U.S. has in the world and exaggerate how important those interests are. All of a sudden, the U.S. is defending supposedly “vital” interests in places that have no importance for American security whatever. The assumptions behind preventive war also give each administration greater leeway. These allow presidents to dismiss the lack of evidence of a direct threat right now because of a belief that a threat might materialize later on. The slightest possibility that there could be a threat at some point in the future is treated as if there definitely is one, and so the U.S. starts bombing another country. It doesn’t matter that the U.S. isn’t actually threatened by the government or whichever group is being targeted. All that matters is that the U.S. has responded to the overblown threat with “action.” Bombing the supposed future threat becomes self-justifying, and self-defense is expanded to mean whatever the government wants it to mean.

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7 Comments To "The Perils of Threat Inflation"

#1 Comment By safe at home On October 17, 2014 @ 2:36 am

Extraordinarily secure against the depredations of other nation-states, sure. But the failure of the government to do its job of policing the border, a failure with roots in greed, ideology, and raw incompetence, has made us in another sense one of the least secure.

There are literally millions of people here about whom we have no idea either who they are or what they’re doing, or, to bring it up to date, what horrific diseases they may be carrying.

Our “security” is so shoddy that our government was recently reduced to admitting that ISIS volunteers from America had somehow slipped through the fingers of the most expensive and pervasive surveillance and security on Earth, gotten on planes to go to Syria, and that they might come back at any moment because the government had no way of stopping them …

So no, we won’t be “extraordinarily secure” until we kick the habit of shaking up foreign hornet’s nests, define and police our borders, and start minding our own business.

#2 Comment By Egypt Steve On October 17, 2014 @ 8:15 am

Lincoln understood this:

“Let me first state what I understand to be your position. It is, that if it shall become necessary, to repel invasion, the President may, without violation of the Constitution, cross the line and invade the territory of another country; and that whether such necessity exists in any given case, the President is to be the sole judge…But Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose – and allow him to make war at pleasure…. If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, ‘I see no probability of the British invading us’ but he will say to you ‘be silent; I see it, if you don’t.’”

#3 Comment By Barry On October 17, 2014 @ 10:52 am

safe at home:

“Our “security” is so shoddy that our government was recently reduced to admitting that ISIS volunteers from America had somehow slipped through the fingers of the most expensive and pervasive surveillance and security on Earth, gotten on planes to go to Syria, and that they might come back at any moment because the government had no way of stopping them …”

Do you understand that (a) people can *leave* the USA with minimal checking and tracking and that (b) anybody going to Syria to join guerrillas there will not have a ticket which says ‘NYC to ISIS HQ’?

#4 Comment By crf On October 17, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

What motivates US nationals to fight for ISIS isn’t anti-americanism. It’s Jihad.

So even if those American ISIS volunteers do a tour and come back, they are not likely to be much of a greater threat than they were before they left.

Before Bin Laden, I think the US had the (correct) understanding that Islamic fundamentalist violence was basically local to the middle east, in Muslim countries or areas. After Bin Laden, whose attack was an abberation, the US seemed to believe that it was central target of all Islamic fundamentalist violence.

It needs to disabuse itself of that notion. Islamic violence is largely not about the US.

#5 Comment By bacon On October 17, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

Starting at least as far back as Viet Nam, we have found deadly enemies behind many trees and have gone after most of them with similar results. We kill a lot of them, they kill some of us, and money that ought to be spent at home on infrastructure, education, health care, and job creation goes down the rat hole. The public eventually gets tired enough of the war du jour to scare the politicians, they figure out some way to disengage, very few if any of the predicted catastrophic consequences of such a result come to pass, and shortly afterward we start the process again. Each iteration leaves us, in addition to the unmet needs mentioned above, with a new crop of permanently damaged men and women at home, new enemies abroad, and further diminished global prestige. What a mess.

#6 Comment By Club Eastern Med On October 17, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

“Do you understand that (a) people can *leave* the USA with minimal checking and tracking and that (b) anybody going to Syria to join guerrillas there will not have a ticket which says ‘NYC to ISIS HQ’?”

I think that’s “safe at home”‘s point. All the shaven-headed thug-wannabes with wraparound sunglasses and Dobermans, and all the giant server farms of the NSA didn’t identify these people before they left to join ISIS, and can’t identify them when they return. (They’re do a passable job of intimidating and monitoring law-abiding citizens, though, I’ll given them that.)

#7 Comment By Brandyjack On October 20, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

The boy saw a wolf attacking the sheep. He cried “wolf, wolf.” No one in the village came. He had cried wolf to often.
Drop the constant cries of “wolf” for Islam, Illegal immigrants, and all the modern “wolfs.” Concentrate on building America as a example of freedom, tolerance, and a way to a better life.