Tag: september 11

Terrorism News and the 9/11 Anniversary Effect

Terrorism, I have argued previously, has hijacked much of the American foreign policy debate. Regardless of whether we are discussing Iraq, Iran, Libya, Russia, or nuclear weapons, it seems we are really talking about terrorism. But although it feels like we talk about terrorism nonstop these days, we actually talk about it a lot less than we did right after 9/11.

As Figure One shows, the news media’s attention to terrorism declined steadily through 2012. The Syrian civil war and then the emergence of the Islamic State reversed the trend. But even so there were almost 40% fewer news stories mentioning the words “terror” or “terrorism” in 2015 compared to the peak in 2002. 

 Chart of Terrorism News Trend

Of course, the one time every year when we can guarantee seeing plenty of news about terrorism is around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Figure Two compares the daily average coverage of terrorism each year to the number of stories published on September 11. We can think of the difference between the coverage on 9/11 and the daily average as the “anniversary attention effect.” The biggest anniversary effect came in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, when the major U.S. newspapers printed almost six times more articles mentioning terrorism than the daily average. The smallest anniversary effect came in 2015 when the effect only boosted coverage of terrorism by about a third. Though the trend is a bit noisy, over time it is clear that the anniversary effect is shrinking. From 2002 through 2006, anniversary coverage was an average of 2.37 times higher than the daily average, but over the last five years from 2012–2016 anniversary coverage has averaged just 1.88 times higher.

9/11 Anniversary Effect on Terrorism News

The shrinking anniversary attention effect suggests that the resonance of 9/11 may be waning as the attacks recede into history. Of course, we should not be too hasty to conclude that public fears of terrorism are also fading. As John Mueller has written here (and in greater detail here), Americans have harbored a healthy level of fear of future terrorist attacks ever since 9/11. But given how hyperbolic and utterly divorced from reality much of the terrorism rhetoric has been this election cycle, we can only hope that 9/11 is beginning to lose some of its symbolic power. Though it is important to honor friends and family we have lost to terrorism, we cannot let emotion dictate foreign policy. 

No Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Secretary of Defense gave a good speech over the weekend at the Eisenhower library.  Gates used the occasion to evoke Eisenhower and call for discipline in defense spending. But he didn’t really mean it.

The speech makes excellent points about how our military’s size long ago ceased to have anything to do with our potential enemies. He pointed out that the non-war defense budget has grown by about half since September 11 and that country’s current fiscal circumstance means that that growth has got to slow.

But the speech shows no indication that Gates wants to cut defense spending. It isn’t even clear that he has changed his view that defense spending should grow by about 2% annually no matter what happens in the world. He claims that while defense secretary he has canceled programs worth $330 billion in their lifetime. True, but they were replaced by other programs, and the budgets Gates has sent to the Hill have been bigger each year in real terms. A cynical take is that Gates is trying to preempt calls for defense cuts by acting as if roughly flat budgets require great discipline.

What’s really going on here is that the cost of the current defense program is growing so fast that you need large annual increases just to keep what you have. The main cause is rapid growth in the cost of operations and maintenance and personnel. Those accounts are squeezing others (research, development and procurement) needed for new vehicles and weapons. Last year, Gates responded to that pressure by proposing cuts in procurement spending. People treated him like a revolutionary for doing so, but he was just balancing his books. Now that the worst white elephant programs are gone (with several glaring exceptions), Gates is pushing the services to cut overhead costs and shift the saving into procurement. And he is telling them to buy more cheap platforms by controlling requirements creep.  Same price, better product. End of story.

The point Gates missed about Eisenhower is that he used strategy to limit spending. The New Look was an air force-first strategy that limited army and navy spending, much to the chagrin of those services. Gates’ enthusiasm for counter-insurgency wars has not lead him to propose cutting the navy and air force budgets to fund the super-sized ground forces one needs for such missions. His official strategy shows little inclination for hard choices.

Real reductions in military spending require reductions in the ambitions it serves. A cheaper military means doing less. This administration has shown no interest in that. Maybe the fiscal situation will force them to reconsider.