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How Threat Inflation Warps Our Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar digs into why the U.S. inflates threats from the Middle East. One reason is that U.S. politicians and policymakers choose to define anything that other actors in the region do as a threat regardless of the affect that it has on U.S. interests:

Less extreme but all too common has been political and intellectual laziness in which the most basic questions of U.S. interests, and whether and how they are affected by certain distasteful events overseas, do not get asked. The self-licking ice cream cone of military force protection continues to lick, partly because the military presents well-reasoned arguments about what it needs given the framework of deployment it has been directed to occupy, while few questions are asked about the wisdom of the framework itself. In another manifestation of the laziness, states or sub-state actors get sorted once and for all into “friend” or “foe” baskets. And then anything the foes do, or any influence they obtain or exert, is automatically treated as a threat without stopping to ask if and how what they are doing really affects U.S. interests.

We see this all the time in discussions of what are invariably called Iran’s “malign activities.” Iranian involvement somewhere in the region is treated as a threat in itself, and there is never any serious effort made to show that Iranian involvement poses a danger to anything that matters to the U.S. The lazy analysis, as Pillar puts it, assumes that anything that their government does is somehow bad for us simply because they are the ones doing it. In its most absurd manifestations, this causes American leaders to object to Iranian involvement even when they are fighting against a common foe. Iran can be fighting against ISIS directly, and even then some Iran hawks will still try to argue that the two are in cahoots because they insist on lumping all perceived foes together even though they are mutually antagonistic.

In many other cases, hawkish pundits and analysts exaggerate the extent of Iran’s involvement somewhere to justify destructive and harmful policies that they already support for other reasons. Iran’s limited involvement in Yemen has been used this way for years to provide a pretext for backing the Saudi coalition’s atrocious war, and the war has served only to increase Iran’s influence while destroying Yemen and actually harming U.S. and regional security. Another threat-inflating trick is to conflate the interests of clients and the interests of the U.S. and to assume without evidence that whatever threatens the former must also threaten the latter. That conflation of interests obscures the fact that Iran cannot do anything to the U.S., and the only reason that Iran can cause the U.S. any problems is the presence of tens of thousands of American military personnel on their doorstep. That contributes to the “self-licking ice cream cone” Pillar talks about in which the U.S. keeps sending more troops to the region because there are already troops there. The vast majority of those troops doesn’t need to be there to advance and secure U.S. interests, but their presence is now taken as a given and so American political and military leaders go looking for excuses to keep them where they are.

Threats are inflated to justify policies that have little or nothing to do with U.S. security, and then the inflated threats become an ongoing excuse for never leaving any conflict or deployment.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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