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The Hawks Who Cried “Existential Threat”

Roger Cohen must be trying to win some sort of threat inflation award:

I do not see how the Islamic State can be seen as anything other than an existential threat to Western societies.

Hawks frequently abuse the phrase “existential threat” when talking about a manageable potential or real foreign threat. It has most often been misused in the debate over Iran and the nuclear issue, but it has been creeping into the debate over how to fight the war on ISIS. Iran hawks have wrongly claimed that Iran poses an “existential threat” to Israel, and some have gone so far as to say that it poses the same kind of threat to the U.S. This isn’t just careless use of language, but reflects some of the hawks’ basic misunderstandings of foreign threats. One of these is the constant confusion of what a state or group may ultimately want to achieve and what it is capable of achieving. Cohen says that ISIS “stands for the destruction of all…Western freedoms,” but it is not within their power to destroy those freedoms.

Sometimes hawks refer to “existential threat” simply for the sake of fear-mongering to make the threat seem much more serious than it is, and sometimes they also do it because they have no idea how to assess threats. They exaggerate the threat to justify more aggressive policies, but they also exaggerate it because they don’t know how to distinguish between different kinds. Because they can’t tell the difference between threats that jeopardize our existence as a country and those that merely threaten our interests (or those that don’t threaten us at all but do endanger others), they opt for the most alarming description of the threat as if to show how “seriously” they take it. The funny thing about this is that the people that claim to be taking the threat most “seriously” by blowing it out of proportion are among the worst at coping with and addressing the threat because they can’t even define it correctly.

The truth is that ISIS and its affiliates don’t pose an “existential threat” to Western societies, and it is laughable to think that they ever could. They arguably don’t pose an “existential threat” to anyone except the people that have unfortunately fallen under their control and possibly their immediate neighbors. At the very least, the threat they pose to us and to other Western nations remains a relatively small and manageable one. The only real “existential threat” that Western nations have faced since WWII was the Soviet Union and their satellites, and in the end the threat from them proved to be a manageable one that the U.S. and its allies successfully faced down and outlasted. ISIS poses a much smaller threat to the U.S. and its allies than the Soviets ever did, and we should not inflate that threat into something that it clearly isn’t. The problem isn’t just that threat inflation is bad analysis (though it is), but that it often leads to reckless and irresponsible policies that aren’t even required to address the danger. Threat inflation prompts us to favor unnecessary and excessive measures here and overseas, and it causes us to obsess over combating certain adversaries to the detriment of other more important interests. Describing something as an “existential threat” is the worst and most irresponsible kind of threat inflation. It is a phrase that ought to be reserved to describe only the most dire threats to our very survival. That doesn’t apply to ISIS or indeed to any terrorist group.

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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