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McCain’s Panicked Alarmism

S.K.Vemmer/Department of State

Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t think much of hawkish criticisms of Obama on Syria, but that doesn’t mean he approves of our Syria policy:

Obama’s foreign policy in Syria has been stupid. But the Republican response to it has descended into gibbering insanity.

I thought “gibbering insanity” might be a bit harsh when I first read this, but then John McCain reminded me that this accurately describes a lot of hawkish Republican criticism of Obama’s entire foreign policy record. Responding to a Dave Weigel question about the 2008 election, McCain said this:

I had no idea that some seven years later that this world would be facing the most crises since World War II and the most crises since the end of World War II.

There is no sense in which this statement is true. The world is not going through “the most crises” in seventy years or anything close to it. Certainly none of our current crises poses the same risk to international peace and security that several Cold War-era crises did, and none of them could unless Graham and friends get their way and start shooting down Russian planes over Syria. At almost any time during the Cold War, there were many more conflicts, upheavals, and crises around the world than there are today, and yet somehow our political leaders were not constantly panicking about them as much as so many of our politicians are now. In spite of some serious conflicts in a few parts of the world, the world as a whole is relatively more peaceful than it has been over the last several generations. There are undoubtedly enduring problems in many parts of the world, but compared to almost any previous decade of the last century the world is overall in better shape than it has been in the lifetimes of anyone now alive. That should be something to be welcomed and to be kept in mind amid all the alarmism and agitation for more military intervention, but it doesn’t fit with the bogus “world is literally about to blow up” narrative that McCain and Graham want to promote.

Obviously McCain has several political and ideological axes to grind here and should never be taken seriously on foreign policy for many other reasons, but the danger is that many Americans wrongly think that the world is just as chaotic and crisis-ridden as McCain claims. One reason for this is that McCain and Graham can make outlandish statements about how horrible the state of the world is, and yet they are rarely called out for their shameless fear-mongering and self-serving rhetoric. Their claims are treated as reasonable by journalists, and as a result readers and viewers that are paying limited attention to these issues take these claims far more seriously than they should. Another is that only the worst and most destructive events overseas receive significant coverage here in the U.S., and media outlets have strong incentives to exaggerate and hype these events to hold the public’s attention, which makes the irresponsible and false claims from the McCains in the debate seem less ridiculous. Our foreign policy debate is also slanted heavily in favor of politicians and pundits that make outrageous-but-combative statements about foreign threats and the state of the world, so there are very few people in the debate making the case against threat inflation and alarmism. That creates a situation in which absolutely untrue statements like the one McCain made go largely unchallenged.

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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