May 13, 2020 4:00PM

Reflections on “The American Perception of Substate Threats”

Editor’s note: In 2014, Cato released A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security, an edited volume of papers originally presented at a Cato conference the previous year. In each chapter, experts on international security assessed, and put in context, the supposed dangers to American security, from nuclear proliferation and a rising China, to terrorism and climate change.

As part of our Project on Threat Inflation, Cato is republishing each chapter in an easily readable online format. Even six years after its publication, much of the book remains relevant. Policymakers and influencers continue to tout a dizzying range of threats, and Americans are still afraid. We invited each author to revisit their arguments and offer a few new observations in light of recent events. The first of these, by Brendan Rittenhouse Green, appeared here last week.

Paul R. Pillar, a non‐​resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University, and a non‐​resident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, provides his thoughts below. His reflections on his chapter are informed by his 28‐​year career in the U.S. intelligence community, and his voluminous writing and research, including his most recent book, Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception (Columbia University Press, 2016), which he discussed at Cato in late 2016.


Prevailing American thinking about substate threats—and more specifically the thinking that shapes U.S. policy—exhibits at least as much of a disconnect between perception and reality as when A Dangerous World? was published six years ago. The policy players and their principal bugbears have changed, but broader patterns my earlier essay identified persist. Perhaps the most glaring demonstration of this persistence is the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan—more than eighteen years after the original intervention, in what has become America’s longest war. A major impediment to withdrawing those troops continues to be the notion of Afghanistan as a unique “safe haven” for terrorists who, because of that haven, are supposedly more likely than they otherwise would be to inflict harm on Americans. The result is an interminable military expedition that in important respects is doing more harm than good.

The evolution of international terrorism during the last six years has challenged other common but flawed thought patterns about terrorism. The biggest development in that evolution has been the rise and, as a territorial entity, fall of the Islamic State or ISIS. This group’s split from, and competition with, Al Qaeda underscore the error of the earlier tendency to treat violent Sunni radicalism as monolithic, with the accompanying habit of applying the label “Al Qaeda” to the whole phenomenon. ISIS’s history also further refutes the thinking about terrorist safe havens. When ISIS had its mini‐​state in Iraq and Syria, it was focused primarily on running and maintaining that entity and less focused on international terrorism than it has been when lacking such a territory.

The Trump administration appears to have centered its threat perceptions more on states than on substate phenomena. Nonetheless, its foreign policies demonstrate some of the patterns identified in the earlier essay, including the tendency to divide the perceived world simplistically into competing camps of good guys and bad guys. A prime example is the administration’s idea of a NATO‐​like security alliance in the Middle East that would unite the United States, Israel, and some favored Arab states against a presumed bad guys’ bloc led by Iran. Nonstate actors such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement in Yemen, and some militias in Iraq are placed in the bad guys’ camp because of their association with Iran. The idea hasn’t gotten anywhere partly because it does not correspond to the more complicated lines of conflict and competition in the Middle East.

The administration’s obsession with Iran also illustrates a corollary to a pattern the earlier essay identified regarding perceptions of revolutionary violence and regime change. The pattern is the habitual assumption that regime change in any state the United States currently considers a friend or ally is assumed to be a threat to the United States. The corollary is that any regime change in a state the United States considers an adversary is assumed to be good. Thus, the Trump administration presses on with its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which, in the absence of feasible demands or constructive diplomacy, can only be aimed at collapse of the current Iranian regime. It presses on—and in so doing raises the risk of escalation to a wider war—oblivious to the likelihood that a replacement regime, such as a Revolutionary Guard dictatorship, would be even worse than what Iran has now.

Now the United States and the world are confronting a nonstate threat, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, that is inflicting death and damage orders of magnitude beyond what was ever inflicted by the substate actors that for years have been the focus of American threat perceptions. Unlike with, say, terrorism, there certainly has been no problem of previously prevailing threat perceptions exceeding the reality. With terrorism, more sober voices have had to point out that in most years more Americans drown in bathtubs than fall victim to terrorism. Even after an outlier event such as 9/11, the casualties have been many times fewer than, say, the number of Americans who die in traffic accidents. But in only a couple of months, COVID-19 has left bathtub drownings in the dust and has killed more Americans than a year’s worth of traffic deaths.

One pattern applicable to other nonstate threats that does apply to the current pandemic is the tendency—a characteristically American tendency—to overstate the newness of a threat. The novel coronavirus may be novel in terms of virology, but infectious disease epidemics certainly are not. Plagues go back to ancient times. A failure to think in such terms is one factor underlying the inadequacy of preparations to deal with the likes of COVID-19.

Some of the U.S. responses to COVID-19 can be attributed to Trump’s habits, such as the flagellation of China as a way to deflect blame and attention away from the administration’s performance. But a more general American tendency is in play as well. COVID-19 is a nonstate threat, but it also is a nonhuman threat. As such, it does not conform well with the way Americans habitually think of their bêtes noires. Americans have long looked for monsters to destroy, but they expect the monster to have a face, in the form of a loathed leader, regime, or substate group. They have difficulty thinking ahead about meeting faceless threats such as a disease or a changing climate.

This is one reason to temper silver‐​lining hopes that the pandemic will get people and their government to think more about threats that are most likely to kill them and less about foreign regimes or groups that are unlikely to do so. Just look at how the Trump administration has continued with its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. As thoughtful and expert observers on both sides of the Atlantic have observed, any nation’s inability to get the virus under control impedes efforts to contain the pandemic globally and thus threatens other nations’ citizens. A prudent step, therefore, would be to ease the U.S. sanctions that are impairing Iran’s ability to contain COVID-19. At a time when tens of thousands of American deaths ought to make control of the pandemic an overriding priority, the Trump administration ignores this advice.

- Paul Pillar, Washington, DC