Chronic Threat Inflation
Attempts to frame recent West African coups as a crisis fit a familiar pattern.
Political leaders have a nearly universal habit of highlighting alleged foreign threats. Usually, the “threats” are greatly exaggerated, and sometimes they are entirely fictional. The United States has been the worst offender in using that cynical tactic, but it is not the only country to do so. In an interview with the Washington Post, Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, Niger’s ambassador to the United States, asserted that if the recent military coup in his country was allowed to stand, the “whole world will be destabilized.” Secretary of State Tony Blinken expressed support for indications that Niger’s neighbors might forcibly intervene to restore the elected government.
The absurdity of Linman-Tinguiri’s statement cannot be exaggerated. West Africa is a strategic backwater in terms of global affairs, despite the attempt of the ambassador and his government’s Western backers to contend that both Islamic extremists and the evil Russians pose a dire threat. What happens in Niger may be important to that country and its immediate neighbors, but it is scarcely vital to the nations of East Asia, Europe, or the Western Hemisphere, despite the country’s abundant natural resources.
NATO leaders have similarly exaggerated Ukraine’s significance—long before the Russian invasion in February 2022. It is hard to fathom how a corrupt, economically dysfunctional, midsize country in Eastern Europe became so important to the United States and its allies that they are waging a dangerous proxy war with possible nuclear implications against Russia. Ukraine was a subordinate political entity within the Soviet Union until late 1991, so it clearly was not a relevant, much less a vital, Western strategic interest. Ukraine’s value remained marginal throughout the initial years of independence. U.S. officials have never explained how, when, or why that situation changed so dramatically.
U.S. and NATO leaders have now elevated Ukraine’s importance to stratospheric levels. Just hours after Russian forces crossed the border, the White House contended that Moscow’s actions constituted a menace to “global peace and security.” On numerous occasions since, U.S. and European policymakers have insisted that Ukraine is on the front lines of a fight to preserve a rules-based international order and to thwart a global authoritarian threat to democracy. President Biden stated the thesis succinctly, alleging that the Ukraine war is “a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules‐based order and one governed by brute force.”
That argument is utterly faulty. First, Ukraine is not a democracy by any reasonable definition of the term. The Russia-Ukraine war is a turf fight between two authoritarian regimes over mundane economic, cultural, and strategic issues. Without NATO’s ill-advised decision to escalate the conflict into a Western proxy war against Russia, it would never have been more than a parochial struggle. In any case, the war does not constitute an existential fight between democracy and autocracy.
Second, Western officials have not only greatly inflated Kiev’s democratic credentials, but they have shamelessly hyped the “Russian threat.” If one believes the rhetoric coming out of Washington or European capitals, Moscow controls a military juggernaut that could dominate Europe. Such hyperbolic fears, however, do not correspond to the facts on the ground. Russia’s offensive in Ukraine has taken far longer and cost substantially more in Russian blood and treasure than the Kremlin anticipated. Granted, NATO’s military aid to Kiev is a significant reason for that development, but the lumbering performance of the Russian military has multiple causes. In any case, the notion that a country that has encountered such difficulty in subduing Ukraine could menace other, far more capable powers, and dominate the continent, is geostrategic hysteria.
Unfortunately, such threat exaggeration has been a frequent tactical ploy on the part of the United States and its allies over the decades. President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented the domino theory, which asserted that a communist victory in Vietnam would destabilize and lead to communist domination of all East Asia. That assumption characterized the rhetoric coming out of Washington about the supposed necessity for the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.
During Ronald Reagan’s administration, officials repeatedly contended that left-wing regimes and insurgencies in such places as Central America and sub-Saharan Africa had much wider implications for both world peace and U.S. security. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, insisted that Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait posed an intolerable threat to regional peace. Administration officials and their allies in the news media hyped the alleged capabilities of Iraq’s military—even though Saddam Hussein’s regime had just fought an inconclusive, multi-year war against neighboring Iran, a country convulsed and weakened by the Islamic revolution. A decade later, Bush’s son would wage a similar, even more successful, propaganda campaign directed against Saddam.
No foreign country or movement has seemed too small to be a target of threat inflation. In the mid-1950s, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden tried to portray Egyptian leader Gamel Nasser as a threat comparable to that posed by Adolf Hitler when Nasser took control of the Suez Canal. Bill Clinton and his advisors invoked the image of Hitler to justify NATO’s military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, using Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic as the designated bogeyman. Libyan strongman Muamar Qaddafi and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad became more recent incarnations. In those cases, the United States and its allies have ended up backing factions that are even more odious than the autocrats they were trying to unseat.
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Given that long, disgusting record of duplicity on the part of Western leaders, populations in those countries and around the world should be triply skeptical about warnings of the latest alleged existential threats. The international system is not about to unravel because of military coups in West Africa. Nor is global democracy going to collapse if Russia eventually prevails in Ukraine. Policymakers who engage in such threat inflation insult the intelligence of the people they purport to represent.
It is not entirely clear why officials routinely engage in such exaggerations. On some occasions, their statements seem to be part of outright disinformation campaigns, while at other times, policymakers appear to believe their own propaganda. Some of the warnings about serious security threats are at least plausible. An attack by China on Taiwan, for example, would have wide-ranging destabilizing effects.
It is not plausible, though, that Western leaders truly believed that countries such as Serbia or Libya posed a significant security menace. Yet they contended that the actions of Belgrade and Tripoli not only justified but required U.S.-led military interventions. Those were cases of cynical threat inflation on steroids, and the ongoing campaign to portray the coups in West Africa as a crisis fits the same pattern.