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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Washington’s Chronic Threat Inflation

by Micah Zenko
June 27, 2012

U.S. republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign event in Pennsylvania on June 16, 2012 (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign event in Pennsylvania on June 16, 2012 (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters).


In the March/April print edition of Foreign AffairsMichael Cohen and I coauthored an essay challenging the prevailing rhetoric of Washington-centric threat inflation, “Clear and Present Safety: The United States Is More Secure than Washington Thinks.” We argue that the world today is one with fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history.

Since we published our essay, U.S. policymakers have continued to serve up a smorgasbord of exaggerated and overblown threats. Yesterday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey—who believes that the United States faces more danger today than at any other point since 1974—described a “quilt or mosaic of threats” (think “insecurity blanket”), in which cyberwar “could be the most catastrophic.” (His statement follows just weeks after the full extent of the joint U.S.-Israeli offensive cyber attacks against Iran’s centrifuge program were revealed.) Last month, Senator Lindsay Graham referred to Iran as “an existential threat we face from a rogue regime.” Finally, on Memorial Day, presidential candidate Mitt Romney lamented: “I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today. It’s not.”

Despite widespread bipartisan agreement—a rarity in this day and age—this conventional wisdom is wrong. For instance, earlier this month the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) released its 2011 Report on Terrorism, which offers best statistics on terrorism trends, or “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Two highlights from the NCTC report:

“The total number of worldwide attacks in 2011, however, dropped by almost 12 percent from 2010 and nearly 29 percent from 2007.”

Of 13,288 people killed by terrorist attacks last year, 17 were private U.S. citizens, or .1 percent.

As I’ve pointed out—and cited by Stephen Colbert last week in a “ThreatDown” segment—a comparable number of Americans are crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year. Even Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, recently revealed, “Al-Qaida wasn’t as good as we thought they were on 9/11.”

The blogosphere churned out dozens of responses and mentions of our Foreign Affairs piece, including a valuable criticism by Paul D. Miller published, along with our response, in the current edition of Foreign Affairs. (You have to register in order to read the piece, but it’s free!) Miller writes:

“There are major challenges to the global order that endanger U.S. national security…nuclear-armed autocracies, the spread of failed states and the rogue actors who operate from within them, and a global Islamist insurgency.”

In response, Cohen and I note that the purported threats articulated by Miller are, in fact, a strong corroboration of our argument that politicians, government officials, military leaders, and national security experts regularly exaggerate threats facing the United States. At the same time, we contend that Miller underestimates Washington’s ability to respond to such threats, specifically:

“The United States has unmatched intelligence and analytic capabilities and some of the world’s best diplomats. Its defense budget is larger than those of the next 14 countries combined and supports over 2,000 operationally deployed nuclear weapons; an air force of some 4,000 aircraft; a navy with 285 ships, including 11 carrier strike groups; and 770,000 active-duty soldiers and marines. Even if this budget is reduced by eight percent over the coming decade, as Congress agreed it would be as part of the 2011 debt-limit agreement, the men and women who protect the country and its interests will still be able to meet the challenges that may come their way.”

We welcome additional thoughts and criticisms of our Clear and Present Safety thesis. And as we enter the presidential campaign season, be on the lookout for those who practice threat inflation as foreign policy analysis.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by bill

    you’re naive if you think that the world is a safer place than it was 10, 20, 50, or 100 years ago. while it is true that widespread multi-national conflicts are not as prevalent now, it does not mean that atrocities are not occuring on a daily basis all over the world.

    i do believe that these external threats are nowhere near as dangerous as the one we’re cooking up from the inside: the rapid expansion of government and spending, perpetrated by both political parties. our country is being bankrupted, and nothing is being done to stop it.

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