Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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The Pentagon’s Threat Smorgasbord

by Micah Zenko
April 26, 2012

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gets his lunch aboard the USS Peleliu (Courtesy Reuters/Mike Blake). U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gets his lunch aboard the USS Peleliu (Courtesy Reuters/Mike Blake).

Last week, while discussing U.S. military planning for the Korean Peninsula, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned, “No question we’re within an inch of war almost every day in that part of the world.” As a follow up, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Secretary Panetta what other issues kept him up at night. He responded: “Well, obviously Iran, Syria, the whole issue of turmoil in the Middle East, the whole issue of cyber war, the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction, rising powers—all of those things are threats that the United States faces in today’s world.” (Yesterday, Panetta inflated the worrisome geography to include “transnational threats” like “turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa” and the “threat of natural disasters.”)

Panetta’s comments echoed a recent speech by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Kennedy School at Harvard University, where he expanded on his earlier claim that the United States is living in the most dangerous time since 1974 by introducing the “security paradox.” According to Dempsey, trends of greater peace and stability are negated by the proliferation of lethal and destructive technologies available to state and nonstate actors: “More people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life.” Thus, although “we still have a lot of tricks up our sleeves, the message is that the margin of error has grown smaller.”

These comments perfectly exemplify what I call the threat smorgasbord: an all-encompassing buffet of specific and generalized threats—emanating from states or nonstate actors (i.e., everyone)—which are presented in such a manner that there is always something lurking around the corner. Panetta characterizes the world as “challenging and unpredictable,” as Dempsey writes about “a more unpredictable and dangerous security environment.”

The problem with exhibiting these national security threats (borrowing Panetta’s colorful description of deep defense cuts) as “blind,” “goofy,” and “across the board,” is that they are completely void of context. Threats are not prioritized by likelihood, plausible impact on U.S. national interests, or appropriate military response—if any.

For example, concerns about “the whole issue of turmoil in the Middle East” have served as an organizing principle for the Pentagon since the Carter Doctrine (at least), although one would be hard-pressed to make the case that U.S. military operations and presence in the region were worth the bloated costs and loss of life. Based on Pentagon data, at least nine thousand U.S. servicemembers have died during deployments to the Middle East since 1980: Iranian hostage rescue, Iraq, Afghanistan, Beirut International Airport attack, and various air attacks against Syria and Libya.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the Iraq War (the one that started in 2003) has had greater direct costs ($810 billion)—and slightly increasing—than the Vietnam War ($738 billion). According to Harvard economist Linda Bilmes: “We can say for certain that the total cost will be at least $4 trillion. This figure could climb much higher, depending on the number of veterans who require long-term care, the cost of replacing equipment, and the full social and economic impact of the war.” Given that less than 13 percent of U.S. oil comes from the Middle East, protecting oil by spending double its worth is increasingly unjustifiable.

The real target of these inflated and generalized national security threats are congressional appropriators, specifically the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Senator Kent Conrad. Last week, Senator Conrad indicated that he will attempt to revive the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (known as Bowles-Simpson) debt reduction plan, which was endorsed by eleven of the commission’s eighteen members in December 2010. Bowles-Simpson would cut projected deficits by $4 trillion through 2020. More importantly for the Pentagon, however, Bowles-Simpson “security” spending (a broad category that includes national defense, homeland security, nuclear weapons, and veterans affairs) would add an additional $450 billion to the defense spending cuts already projected ($487 billion over the next ten years) under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

This is all familiar territory for Panetta. As House Budget Committee chairman, he fought with then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney over post-Cold War defense spending cuts. Not surprisingly, Panetta wanted to cut the Pentagon’s budget by up to 40 percent, while Cheney aimed for a less severe 25 percent. In one particularly contentious hearing in July 1991, Cheney fired at Panetta, “Message: We’ve already cut the living daylights out of the defense budget, Mr. Chairman.” Not surprisingly, Cheney won that round, and it is likely Panetta will fend off Senator Conrad this time as well. But, when Panetta elevates threats—such as his recent claim that Iran is expanding terrorist activities to Latin America, a nonevent—the intended effect is to scare you, and, more importantly, congressional appropriators. Consider yourself warned.

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