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Unfounded Fears and Threat Inflation

In the first chapter of his book [1], Christopher Fettweis notes that the U.S. is oddly both the most secure country in the world while also being one whose leaders and commentators purport to feel extremely insecure:

For many analysts of U.S. foreign policy, one belief has remained constant at least since World War II: we are living in dangerous times. Many of those who make and/or comment on U.S. foreign policy maintain that the world is full of enemies and evil, so this (whenever this is) is no time to relax….Constant repetition of this idea has over time generated genuine belief in leaders and followers alike, and substantial, sometimes amorphous fear. A 2009 poll found that nearly 60 percent–and full half of the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)–considered the world more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. (p.25)

One of the most constant themes in hawkish arguments is not only that threats are many and great, but that there are more of them than ever and they are more dangerous than they have ever been. The more manageable minor threats are, the more inclined we seem to be as a country to overrate them and overreact to them. The absence of real major threats gives us the luxury of exaggerating existing dangers to the U.S. That habit of exaggerating existing threats then feeds the belief that the world is much more dangerous for us now than when the U.S. faced a hostile superpower, and that it is becoming more so all the time. Because every minor, manageable threat is built up into a menace that it could never actually be, Americans perceive a largely peaceful and secure world as an increasingly chaotic and dangerous one.

When unfounded and excessive, this fear can be especially debilitating and harmful. Fettweis continues:

In practice, states that exhibit unwarranted fear, because they sense danger and enemies everywhere, are far more likely to lash out in what they perceive as self-defense….They are prone to support actions that reason would suggest are unnecessary and often end up doing more harm than good to their objective self-interest. Most basically, they are unlikely to weigh accurately the pros and cons of decisions, raising the danger of blunders and folly. (p. 26)

Threat inflation is not just a failure of analysis, but the cause of serious misunderstandings about the rest of the world that pave the way for unnecessary conflicts and damage to real U.S. interests.

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20 Comments To "Unfounded Fears and Threat Inflation"

#1 Comment By Richard W. Bray On May 5, 2014 @ 2:06 am

There is much pathology in the eagerness to inflict upon others that which Kurt Vonnegut referred to as “the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don’t want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more.”

One contributing factor is the deep-seated need of people like John McCain and Victoria Nuland to go gallivanting around the globe swinging their manhood around.

Another contributing factor is the vapid groupthink which infects our foreign policy establishment. For example, it is clear that Anne-Marie Slaughter possesses an impressive intellect and a spectacular array of writing skills. Yet she could somehow advocate, in the words of Daniel Larison, “Killing Syrians for Ukraine,” a plan which is not merely absurd, but downright evil.

#2 Comment By Dan Davis On May 5, 2014 @ 4:03 am

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” H. L. Mencken

#3 Comment By JK On May 5, 2014 @ 8:23 am

“Most basically, they are unlikely to weigh accurately the pros and cons of decisions, raising the danger of blunders and folly. (p. 26)”

One-percent doctrine, anyone?

Politically, this phenomena is self-reinforcing. Government officials and others repeat the talking point that the world is more dangerous than ever. The electorate largely accepts this as reality and generally rewards the tough-talking candidates. Tough-talking candidates pursue policies to confront the alleged danger, which is the lashing out Fettweis identifies. Lashing out creates repercussions that undermine security. Our Iraq policy under Bush falls into this category, and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan policy does too.

(There are limits on the “danger” demogoguery, to be sure. The invocations candidates employ can get too paranoid or conspiratorial even for the electorate.)

#4 Comment By foreign and domestic On May 5, 2014 @ 10:21 am

“The absence of real major threats gives us the luxury of exaggerating existing dangers to the U.S. ”

I don’t know if I’d put it that way. The absence of real major external threats is an incentive for those with profit motive or alien agendas like the arms industry, the terror industry, AIPAC, and various other foreign lobbies, to fan public fears of external threats.

But inflation of external threats has been accompanied by deflation of threats closer to home, as those shrieking hysterically about “threats” half-way around the world have distracted attention from major domestic threats to millions of Americans, like the catastrophic long-term unemployment situation and the ongoing immigrant invasion.

Look at DHS, which grew morbidly obese on public fear, a black hole into which hundreds of billions in public wealth have vanished. It claims to be in the terror-fighting business but still allows a million illegal immigrants to sneak into the country every year, and can’t even be trusted to deport those that it catches.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 5, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

“In practice, states that exhibit unwarranted fear, because they sense danger and enemies everywhere, are far more likely to lash out in what they perceive as self-defense….They are prone to support actions that reason would suggest are unnecessary and often end up doing more harm than good to their objective self-interest. Most basically, they are unlikely to weigh accurately the pros and cons of decisions, raising the danger of blunders and folly.”

I would prefer that we go down the road of Israel on foreign policy. Making the enemies we fear to justify making war on them.

It would be nice to have an intelligence agency that actually is cleared of the distractions of political manipulation so that evidence is actually evidence as opposed to policy justification. A “just the facts . . .” assessment.

9/11 was abused by the public no less so bylaw enforcement, media, Hollywood, and politicians. The event wasn’t manufactured (well, the evidence is pretty vague that that occurred.). Our response has made the ME a mess. And I think more a threat in every way. And I include the response by the current admin. as well.

I do not kid when I say the air was thick for anyone who wasn’t on board in my neighborhood. And I will never be convinced that had I been on that bandwagon of ” . . let’s roll” into Iraq and Afghanistan, my finical status would far different. In some ways, I am sad my assessment was correct, because it only makes the indictment against those who have supported heavy handed military solutions to these instances of ‘terror’ heavier and the whole affair hollow as well as shallow shattering our credibility ad putting us on par with European hypocrisy — credibility matters and our behavior of late has ever increasing negative consequences in my view.

That said,

Hawks are important, not because they are right. But they keep us vigilant. Because there are times when one must set loose the ‘dogs of war’. Of late, we seem wholly incapable of knowing when and why that should be the case.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 5, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

It was not until I experienced ‘Glasnost’ first and in meeting some Russians counselors at youth camp, did I really get the need for change in response to he Soviet Unions own shift.

And while I knew Russia had no intention of going gently, if at all into that dark night and her raging would be far less aggressive, she would remain a world stage player —

It is frustrating that many seem hell bent t make her the enemy they fear.

#7 Comment By James Canning On May 5, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

I too recall the nonsense in 2009 when 60% of Council on Foreign Relations saw the current situation in the world as more dangerous than during the Cold War. Preposterous.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 5, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

excuse me: ‘first hand’

and I would appreciate if I could have some disagreement with Israeli policy without being called an antisemite.

I feel silly saying, that I love Israel all the time, but l’est I do, I will be taken on the how I hate Israel bus tour — I hate that.

Laughing but lightly

#9 Comment By Seth Owen On May 5, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

I know that most commentators here disagree with Obama on substantive policy grounds on most issues, and Obama’s conduct of foreign policy wins, at best, tepid approval from Mr. Larison for not being as bad as it could be.

Still, Obama’s temperament seems to be one of the most balanced, even-keeled ones we have ever seen in a president — or even a national level politician of any sort or from either party. Operating in politics seems generally to require personality traits that most of us would see as dysfunctional among our family, friends or co-workers. Obama seems deficient in those characteristics to a large degree, which probably explains why he is willing to change course when necessary and why his political opponents seem to have a hard time taking his measure.

Just think of the legendary pathologies of presidents such as Johnson or Nixon. Think of the stained dress. Think of “Mission Accomplished.” As the Republicans seem exceedingly unlikely to nominate a plausible alternative, I expect — and dread — a Hillary Clinton presidency.

We’re going to miss Obama when he is gone. Even here at TAC.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 5, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

Franly, I miss Pres. Richard Nixon.

#11 Comment By Andrew On May 5, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

it is clear that Anne-Marie Slaughter possesses an impressive intellect and a spectacular array of writing skills. Yet she could somehow advocate, in the words of Daniel Larison, “Killing Syrians for Ukraine,” a plan which is not merely absurd, but downright evil.

Which is a direct symptom of some major problems with “impressive intellect”(c). Slaughter and likes, they have no grasp of the reality.

#12 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 5, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

Seth Owen:

I hear what you’re saying, but doesn’t Obama suffer from either a little too much disengagement, or a little too much desire to please all (and end up pleasing none)? Pathologies don’t run all in one direction. Obama seems to want to do what the in crowd wants. And to be afraid to buck that in crowd. For all the “audacity” of his presidential campaign, his presidential Administration has not exactly been a profile in courage. And that seems to be at least as true in FP as in domestic affairs.

The boys in the UK and France wanted a war in Libya, so Obama gave it to them. He was well on his way to war in Syria too, until he realized that hardly anybody else wanted it. He didn’t have the guts to buck the generals in Afghanistan, and doubled down. He didn’t rein in the Nulands in Ukraine, or worse yet, couldn’t be bothered to even try. And he has pandered to the audience with his drone war, his not shutting down Guantanamo, his special forces actions, and his touchdown dance over what amounts to the kidnapping and cold blooded murder of a more or less unguarded sickly old man (OBL).

And he was the one who appointed Hillary to the SOS position, and seemed to follow her, and the other war harpies’ (Power, Slaughter, Rice, etc), advice.

I also see a lot more similarity in his Administration to Bill Clinton’s than you let on. Sure, Obama does not seem to suffer from Bill Clinton’s appetite issues, and is able to keep his trousers up and his hands off the interns. But, leaving stained dresses aside, Clinton’s FP was a lot like Obama’s….fight a nice, successful, limited air war with a fig leaf of “human rights” to cover it up. Check. Kosovo and Libya. Bluff and threaten but don’t start another war. Check. Iraq and Syria. Clinton: missile strikes in Afghanistan and the Sudan. Obama: drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. Clinton ended Bush I’s commitment to Somalia, and avoided Rwanda. Obama is on his way out of Afghanistan, and is already out of Iraq, both of which he inherited, and seems to be avoiding a showdown in the Ukraine.

It seems to me that this is what Democratic presidents (and perhaps, moderate Republican presidents, like Bush I, and maybe even, in retrospect, Reagan), perhaps by default, do…they throw enough red meat out there to satisfy the lib internationalists and at least some of the neo cons. They are open to cheap, easy, US casualty-free “quickie” air wars. They engage in some “off the books” mini wars and strikes here and there (again, more or less US casualty free), but they avoid getting bogged down in new, costly wars that will involve occupation/nation building.

Perhaps this is the best that the two party system can do for the USA at this time. The Republicans, except for the Pauls, seem captive to the worst neo con impulses and factions. The Dems are beholden to the lib internationalists, but not as much. Both parties will pander to Israel, but, again, the Dems maybe slightly less (as with Obama viz a viz Iran). Both parties are beholden to the MIC, but, again, the Dems perhaps slightly less so.

No right thinking person wants a replay of the Bush II FP. Yet that is what the GOP (again, excepting only the Pauls) at the national/presidential nomination level seem to be offering. The Dems offer Endless Intervention Lite (fewer casualties and less cost). While nothing to write home about, it is better than the Republican Endless Intervention Regular (with all the casualties and double the costs). So, yeah, if a Republican wins in 2016, then probably the 2009-17 era will seem very good in comparison, just like the 1993-2001 era seemed during Bush II’s Administration. If Hillary were to win instead, then, in my view, we will probably get more of the same as we are getting now under Obama: more bellicose than we would like, but less bellicose than the alternative.

#13 Comment By AnotherBeliever On May 5, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

The above assessments of Dem and Republican foreign policy are pretty good. Dems seem more able to resist the liberal interventionists than the GOP can resist the neocons. By this light you can only vote less bad, or abstain entirely. It’s not a positive choice.

As for fear. I think there are some echoes on the domestic side as well. To be sure, the Recession undermined a lot of peoples’ economic security. But folks seem to direct their fear at a host of unrelated and not all that risky things. The prime example is fear of violent crime, when the overall rate has dropped considerably in the last few decades.

The wide world is very safe for the average American sitting on his living room sofa, with electricity 24 hours a day, climate control, and cheap food and clothing relative to per capita GDP. External threats are almost nonexistent. No military power has the capability of projecting expeditionary military force into U.S. territory. Those countries which could reach us with munitions by air are effectively deterred. Terrorist threats pose a relatively low risk even if you work or live right next to a high profile target. If you do not, the threat is vanishingly low. There’s a risk of some country or group launching a Cyber disruption. But even this is unlikely to succeed, and unlikely to take out your power more than a few days, or to erase your financial assets, if it does succeed.

The world is less stable than it has been in recent decades. The problems in various countries are complex. What common threads there are – such as financial structure, automation, globalization, the limitations of representative government, and the problems of balancing ethnicity or sect with polity – are difficult to come to terms with without critically examining the very underpinnings of democracy and capitalism. And possibly admitting that this system may not work everywhere, or may even only be the least bad alternative here. This is difficult. This does not fit into hyper partisan talking points.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 5, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

“Dems seem more able to resist the liberal interventionists than the GOP can resist the neocons. By this light you can only vote less bad, or abstain entirely.”

Don’t be fooled by recent history.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 5, 2014 @ 9:34 pm

“Still, Obama’s temperament seems to be one of the most balanced, even-keeled ones we have ever seen in a president — or even a national level politician of any sort or from either party. Operating in politics seems generally to require personality traits that most of us would see as dysfunctional among our family, friends or co-workers.”

This is why we need old people.

The current executives choices with the country under no credible immediate threat:

Egypt
Libya
Syria
Ukraine

In each of these places the US has fomented violent insurrection.

I guess if your idea of balance is destabilizing nation states, it makes sense. The Sec. Hillary Clinton foreign policy doesn’t seem al that balanced or rational to me.

The problem with youth is youth. The previous administration at least was responding to actual terror event.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 5, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

And who knows what yet is to come to light. I need not mention drone warfare.

#17 Comment By AnotherBeliever On May 5, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

Recent history left a mark on my hide, the same as the entire cohort who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some more than others. Nevertheless, your point still stands. Sigh.

#18 Comment By ThomasH On May 5, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

I travel a lot to South America, Africa and SE Asia. I know it’s an unrepresentative sample, but my “liberal” friends think it’s great and “conservatives” think I’m running crazy risks.

Now the world IS full of non-liberal regimes and these will always be hostile to a liberal power like the US, but this does not mean that they are actual treats.

#19 Comment By MathGuy On May 6, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

Interventionists are like an overactive immune system-their response to “problems” *is* the problem.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 7, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

” . . . the same as the entire cohort who served in Iraq and Afghanistan”

Just a note. I am not unmindful of those who served in those endeavours.

And while this may serve as small comfort, I appreciate your service and theirs. I wish I could have had force enough for wiser choices.

As someone locked in circumstance to that period — sadly. I often feel as though I let the military down because I took one moment to care about me.

I appreciate your service then and now.