Alarums and Excursions: Explaining Threat Inflation in U.S. Foreign Policy

  • Threat Inflation as Conflict Socialization
  • Unrestrained Power Causes Threat Inflation
  • Who Hypes What and Why
  • Conclusion: Prospects for Balance
  • Endnotes
  • Related Content

In Elizabethan theater, “alarums and excursions” was a stage direction calling for actors to rush about the stage in a chaotic clamor suggestive of battle.1 In American politics, threat inflation has a similarly theatrical role: it tries to confuse and excite an audience to win its support for some policy, often military excursions of some sort. This chapter explains why U.S. defense politics is especially prone to such behavior—why, that is, U.S. leaders serially exaggerate the nation’s vulnerability to national security threats.

The explanation, in a nutshell, is that power gives the United States the opportunity to adopt expansive foreign policy goals.2 “Expansive” here refers not necessarily to attempts at expansion in the sense of territorial acquisition but to a militarily active and interventionist grand strategy. To heighten support for those goals, U.S. leaders exaggerate their contribution to domestic security. Over time, expansive foreign policy also generates societal interests tied to its survival. Those interests, most prominently national security organizations, inflate threats to protect their prerogatives. Educated amid that cacophony of threat inflation, new political leaders learn to echo it, either because doing so seems politically safe or because they believe it. Assertions of insecurity become a cultural habit of American elites.

The chapter begins by defining threat inflation and describing how U.S. leaders use it. It then reviews political science and economics concepts showing how special interest groups dominate debates about risk. The second section shows how the growth of U.S. power distributes the costs of expansive foreign policies, thus undermining the formation of interest groups opposed to such policies. The next shows how power concentrates the benefits of those policies, forming interests that promote themselves with threat inflation. The last section discusses conditions that make for more balanced debate about threats and how to foster them.

In explaining U.S. threat inflation, the chapter sheds light on which security threats are especially prone to exaggeration; on why reactions to new threats are often slow; on why fears tend to outlast the dangers that brought them; and, more generally, how debate fails to purge myth—how the democratic marketplace of ideas fails.

Threat Inflation as Conflict Socialization

Threat inflation is speech that gives an exaggerated sense of danger. It need not involve lying. U.S. leaders, for example, often threat‐​inflate by abusing worst‐​case scenarios—highlighting a dangerous possibility and omitting its probability.3 Shorn of context, the possibility implies more danger than reality merits. If you tell someone skiing bunny slopes in New Hampshire to beware of avalanches and illustrate the danger with tales of heliskiers buried by snow in the Canadian Rockies, you are not lying. But you have failed to point out that the danger of an avalanche in the White Mountains is remote. You are inflating skiing’s danger. Of course, in national security politics, exaggeration is rarely so blatant. It can be difficult to separate the prudent warning from threat inflation, especially when the speaker’s job is to warn.

In the Semi‐​Sovereign People, E. E. Schattschneider imagines democratic politics as a street fight watched by a crowd.4 The fight’s outcome, he tells us, depends on the extent of the crowd’s involvement. So the brawlers may try to involve the crowd, depending on its disposition and on how the fight is going. In politics, he argues, beneficiaries of the policy status quo will seek to keep conflict narrow, whereas those seeking change will often try to broaden it. Activists frustrated by local politics might try to involve state government, and statewide combatants may look to the federal government. The full Congress can reverse its committees’ actions. The secretary of defense might reevaluate an army decision, and the president, driven by public opinion, might overrule him.

In U.S. politics, threat inflation is often a shout of “danger!” meant to socialize conflict, an effort to energize public opinion. The U.S. system, according to Theodore Lowi, is especially prone to such appeals. Compared with dictatorships or even parliamentary governments, power in the United States is diffuse: spread among branches of government, committees, agencies, and private interest groups.5 Those entities are potential points of resistance to policy change. They create a powerful bias toward the status quo.

Crises and wars unify public goals, overcoming the typical stasis. Invocations of insecurity attempt to create a similarly unifying sense of crisis that removes parochial barriers to collective action.6 Because policymakers always struggle to implement their proposals, alarmism is a regular feature of U.S. policy debate. It rarely works. But as with most shouts for help, the absence of initial success is likely to produce louder shouting, not quiet. Threat inflators are searching for arguments that win with the public.

Another species of threat inflation defends the status quo. Advocates of security organizations and policies naturally defend them by references to the dangers that they confront. Such defenses shade easily into exaggeration, especially as the relevant threat lessens.

Misperception vs. Dishonesty

The considerable academic literature dealing with how states misunderstand and mismanage danger generally focuses on errors of perception—psychological bias, ignorance, intelligence mistakes, and other communication and comprehension problems that prevent the state from correctly interpreting information.7 So the Nazi threat mounted without a proper response because nations slept, blind to its menace. The 9/11 attacks resulted from a “failure of imagination.”8 The United States invaded Iraq because it overestimated Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction arsenal. The solution to misperception is to see more clearly—correct for predictable biases, collect better intelligence, improve analysis of it, share information faster, and use better theory about enemy thinking.

The tendency to attribute security policy failure to misperception follows what can be called the rational‐​comprehensive model of politics, where government is seen as a process of revealing the national interest.9 Intelligence and commission reports, congressional hearings, and analysis from think tanks or academics inform policymakers’ perceptions. Those perceptions yield policy without too much trouble.

The rational‐​comprehensive model sees liberal democracy as a marketplace of ideas that selects for truth and wise foreign policy and sees misperception as a distorter of that market’s prices.10 The separation of powers and the need for public approval mean that policies will be publicly debated. Debate will be wide because the public bears the cost of policies and thus has an interest in truthful analysis of their consequences. Contestation exposes the errors supporting policy options, costing them support. Even the prospect of dissent can prevent leaders from proposing actions detrimental to the national interest. Leaders either learn directly from debate or adjust their preferences for electoral reasons as the public debates its way toward wisdom. The nation will not always avoid folly but will eventually recognize it and self‐​correct. Liberal countries will adjust better than illiberal ones to the international system’s pressures and will adopt wiser foreign policies.11 They should continually reevaluate their assessments of threats and the efficacy of policy responses, adjusting programs and spending accordingly.

Misperception is often a convincing tool for understanding failures in security policy. But there are several reasons to suspect that political analysts overdiagnose it. First, misperception flatters social science. If flawed theoretical lenses cause leaders to misperceive, analysts are optometrists. Their importance under this approach probably makes them overly eager to use it. Second, perceptual explanations for policy failures invite technocratic solutions, which essentially say stick with present policy goals while improving the means—tweaking the engine rather than swapping cars or picking a new destination. Because those fixes threaten no important public organization or interest, they are relatively uncontroversial and easy to implement, making them especially attractive to politically ambitious analysts. Third, misperception shucks aside dishonesty. Children know that politics is dishonest, but international relations scholarship pays little attention to it, probably because it is hidden.12 Elected leaders avoid admitting that they often sacrifice the general or national interest for narrower ones, even those they were elected to represent. National security politics are particularly prone to that problem. The supposed stakes make parochial considerations seem particularly inappropriate, hence the myth that politics stops at the water’s edge.

Pluralism and Threat Perception

The theory elaborated here sees leaders’ tendency to purposely mislead the public as the main cause of national errors about threat. The theory comes from pluralism, not the rational‐​comprehensive model.13 Pluralism sees democratic government as an arena for the competition of interests manifest in pressure groups, congressional committees, and government agencies. In pluralism, sales and bargaining are the guts of democracy; science is just the marketing language. That is because the legitimacy that democratic rule gathers by process is never enough. Science’s sheen, the ritual consultation of expertise, expands policies’ appeal. White papers, intelligence reports, and other forms of expert analysis are less for enlightenment than affirmation—to convince observers that government serves their interests, rescuing it from the ward heeler, the backroom plutocrats, and the like.14 Policies are solutions seeking problems to solve.15 The rational‐​comprehensive model has the causal arrow backward; estimates of danger are more servants of policy preferences than their cause. Ideas’ competition is less a marketplace than a theater, where debate produces noise and passion but little progress toward truth or agreement.16

The American government is supposed to avoid the problem of special interests triumphing over the general interest. In Federalist 10, James Madison argues that faction checks faction in large republics, preventing narrow interests from dominating public policy.17 Madison’s essay reflects a classically liberal idea—one present in the checks and balances in the Constitution—that competition among self‐​interested actors serves the general interest.

David Truman and other early pluralists use similar logic to argue that the U.S. government succeeds by inviting group competition.18 The distribution of power in American government makes it uniquely open to influence, encouraging the formation of political interest groups. Those groups include not only economic interests such as industry associations but also religious groups, civil rights organizations, conservationists, and so forth. New groups organize to advance new goals or to defend old ones against other interest groups. For example, public health advocacy groups trying to ban smoking in bars may prompt bar owners to organize against the ban.

Pluralists see the political interest groups as servants of various societal goods or ends, which they embed in the aims of government agencies. Policymaking is the competition of those goods. The government as it stands—its budget and programs—is their compromise, though not a static one. That outcome approximates the national interest better than any alternative, though none of the competitors will ever be satisfied.

In an optimistic reading of pluralism, interest‐​group competition heightens appreciation of truth. If groups mislead the public, they are likely to harm other groups’ interests. Those groups will combat the misinformation. For example, if the army exaggerates an enemy’s capability in order to win funds for more personnel, the air force may correct the record for fear that the funds will come from its budget. Export industries might downplay threats if responses to them threaten market access. These fights spill into debates in the Congress or the press, and observers learn what is accurate.

Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action critiques the optimistic kind of pluralism. Olson argues that many societal goods—those that he calls public goods—lack interest‐​group protection and, therefore, public policies that serve them.19 His argument implies that no one will inflate threats to serve those goods or to combat threat inflation that harms them.

Public goods have two characteristics, Olson says. No one can be effectively excluded from enjoying the good (nonexcludability), and one person’s consumption of the good does not reduce availability of the good for consumption by others (nonrivalry). Those characteristics encourage people to free-ride—to try to enjoy the good without contributing to its provision. As a result, people lack incentive to provide public goods. That is the collective action or free‐​rider problem. Small groups overcome the free‐​rider problem by enforcing participation and providing benefits for participation (select benefits) to members.

Pecuniary motives are not the sole cause of people’s preferences about politics or engagement in it, of course. People often damage their material well‐​being in service of social, familial, moral, or religious ends. But the fact that some people’s behavior does not reliably follow from material incentives does not mean that they do not create general tendencies that powerfully affect politics. Collective action theory suggests that without the aid of private interests, public goods will be underprovided, whatever the efforts of do‐​gooders. Moreover, even if one’s goals derive from moral considerations, free riding impedes organization.

Government overcomes collective action problems by coercion— forcing people to fund public goods via taxation. But without private interests pushing it in the first place, why will government provide the good? Collective action theory says policy in any given area will serve private interests, not the national interest.

Pure public goods are rare. In most cases, government provision of a good via policy creates classes of beneficiaries.20 A policy’s costs and benefits distribute unevenly and, therefore, so do incentives to try to implement or change it. That insight points to a more realistic way of considering political organization: transaction costs. That term means the cost of engaging in economic exchange, excluding the good’s price. Transaction costs include the effort required to make a deal and gather the information needed to determine whether it is worthwhile.

In public policy terms, the transaction costs that a person would expend to learn his or her interests generally outweigh the benefits gained from doing so. If you do not pay the information cost of learning your interest, you cannot know that for sure, of course. But people will have a general sense that in most policy areas, their efforts are unlikely to pay off. They remain rationally ignorant. Only people who receive relatively high returns from the good have incentive to learn their interests, let alone organize others in service of them.

Policy outcomes, then, depend less on a policy’s total costs and benefits for society than on the intensity and distribution of interests that the policy creates. Minorities with concentrated interests rule over disinterested majorities.21 Those groups—concentrated or special interests— will likely dictate policy if it causes no one losses of similar magnitude. Though transaction costs are an economic concept, their relevance extends to immaterial interests and groups formed to advance them. What facilitates organization is not the nature or origin of preferences but their distribution. The few whose moral or religious fervor makes them care deeply about a policy area exercise outsize influence over it. Cuban exiles dominate U.S. policy toward Cuba just as the farm lobby dominates agricultural policy.

Transaction costs explain how narrow interests dominate not only policy but also ideas about policy. Politics are rife with what economists call information asymmetry—where one party to a potential exchange holds most of the information about the value of a good being sold.22 Because people lack incentive to pay the cost of figuring out what a good is worth to them, they use proxies to guide their political preferences.23 Those that stand to benefit more directly will gather the relevant information, employ experts, and try to convince a larger and more uncertain group that the good is valuable enough to justify their action—organization, contributions, or votes. For example, interest groups such as the Chamber of Commerce will struggle to convince would‐​be members that their contribution buys them something worthwhile. Ideas about politics, including what constitutes a threat, are largely the byproduct of the formation and conflict of organized political interests.24 Voting for a party or candidate is deciding whose story about your best interest to believe.

That logic extends to ideologies, which are informal normative frameworks.25 Ideology is considered here to be a species of institution, which means rules and norms governing human behavior.26 Ideologies allow people to generate many preferences from a few beliefs. The belief that you are a conservative, for example, yields a plethora of beliefs about how society ought to be constituted. Ideology thus lowers both the cost of policy preferences and the cost of translating them into action. Leaders use ideology to convince the public to support particular policies.

Once a policy’s cost becomes high enough, those paying have incentive to inform themselves, reducing asymmetry and the potential for manipulation. For example, those likely to be drafted into Vietnam and killed became more informed about the war and more likely to oppose it.27 Where information is cheaper, more individuals have incentive to gather it and discern their interests more carefully.

This analysis of transaction costs has three implications about threat perception and national reaction to threats worth highlighting. First, because learning about security is expensive, national security is especially prone to information asymmetry and thus to threat inflation. Few entities can afford the surveillance assets needed to know the disposition of foreign missiles. It is hard to learn what terrorists in Waziristan are doing, even if you live there. As a result, information about threats comes mostly from government or analysts tied to it.28 Threats are ambiguous, and the logic of policies meant to mitigate them is often complex. Providers of security play a particularly dominant role in the formation of public ideas about it.

Second, the distribution of societal interests implicated by responses to the danger—the domestic economy of incentives—drives national reactions to danger. If responding to a threat creates concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, government will likely adopt expensive and aggressive policies to combat it. Threats that encourage policies creating concentrated costs and diffuse benefits may provoke little response. Policies that concentrate costs and benefits will create controversy and a balanced response to threats. If responding to a threat concentrates no interest, we should expect an indifferent policy response.

Third, national threat perception will be slow to respond to changes in threat. Interests tied to a threat will not disappear with it. They will continue to promote it or the similar threats that they combat.29 In fact, by endangering those interests, the threat’s disappearance may even increase their output of hype.

Unrestrained Power Causes Threat Inflation

Expansive defense policies and perception of threats that justify them serve the national security establishment but harm the American public slightly. Threat inflation is one tool that the establishment uses to convince the public otherwise. Because expansive policies’ costs distribute to everyone as deficits or taxes, few people have an incentive to organize against them and convince the public of its true interests.

Arnold Wolfers argues that the term “national security” tends to cloak other interests:

A glance at history will suffice to show that survival has only exceptionally been at stake, particularly for major powers. If nations were not concerned with the protection of values other than their survival as independent states, most of them, most of the time, would not have had to be seriously worried about their security, despite what manipulators of public opinion engaged in mustering greater security efforts may have said to the contrary.30

Wolfers says that we give rhetoric too much due in considering the sources of foreign policy. States want safety, but they also seek status, material gain, and ideological goods. Some states, he says, value such goals more than security.31 To maximize support, they always talk about their goals in relation to security, however, obscuring the distinction between needs and wants.

The modern United States is Wolfers’s poster child. National survival is virtually ensured by geography, tradition, nuclear weapons, and the wealth and technology that generate military power. For most Americans, unsuccessful wars, even the recent one in Iraq, result in little more than marginally higher tax rates or debt. Since the draft’s end, war kills only the volunteer military and foreigners. Contrast that with Europeans living 100 years ago or the Athenians portrayed by Thucydides, where foreign policy failures meant conquest and mass death, and even successful wars would kill many sons and consume a considerable portion of societal wealth. U.S. foreign policy, no matter how misguided, rarely endangers safety at home.32

But nothing sells foreign policy in public like danger. To increase public support for an interventionist foreign policy, leaders portray it as a means to lessen threats. That portrayal requires threat inflation. There is a paradox: security increases the sense of insecurity.33 In economic terms, the costs of expansive U.S. foreign policies might badly outweigh the benefits, but costs are diffuse. The United States makes foreign policy like rich people shop: indulging luxurious tastes without much concern about price.

That argument is broadly consistent with realism. Realism concerns the systematic interaction of power. It sees rival power, or appreciation of its possibility, as the source of restraint in domestic and international politics. Power checks power. We can preach self‐​restraint, but preaching rarely restrains when opportunities for indulgence arise.

Realism is sometimes seen as the absence of folly, as clear‐​eyed pragmatism. But that view is realpolitik—the behavior the international system encourages, according to Kenneth Waltz.34 His theory, structural realism, considers states to be like units in anarchy seeking survival with varying capability. The system created by the interaction of those units is competitive. Competition encourages states to protect their power through realpolitik. One such behavior is to balance each other’s power. Another is to appreciate the limits of power, the danger of provoking rivals. International politics thus generally encourages restraint in territorial acquisition, troop deployment, and war making.

Structural realism should not be confused with the unconditional prediction that states adopt realpolitik—pragmatic, restrained policies.35 The theory says that international relations generally create pressures against military adventurism, but not always. Systemic pressures vary with time, geography, and relative capabilities. When threats are remote and relative resources great, structural realism suggests that foreign policy contrary to realpolitik is more likely.36 Another way to put it is that states, like people, are more likely to act according to moral values when the price of doing so is low.37

Systemic pressures were strong in European states a century ago. They have long been weak in the United States. They are nearly absent today. As a result, the United States has embraced realpolitik only intermittently, when threats loomed, and has traditionally indulged an expansive foreign policy. Realists today typically argue that the international system will teach the United States restraint, sooner or later. But structural realism can accommodate the idea that the system is the problem, not the solution.

The absence of international constraint is an open door. Relative power and safety offer an opportunity for an expansive foreign policy. Whether or not the state walks through depends on its internal characteristics.38 But a history of being unrestrained internationally will affect characteristics in consequential ways. The education offered by international politics needs to become institutionalized to guide state policy. So it will be slow to take even once conditions encourage it, and it will outlast the dangers that brought it. What matters in producing threat inflation is not simply the absence of restraint because of relative power, but the history of being unrestrained and safe.

Institutions explain why not all states, having the same power as the United States does, would do as it does.39 For historical reasons, a state with similar relative power and safety might have more doubt about whether it can be a global force for good. Having been institutionalized, those beliefs resist changes in international conditions, changing only gradually or because of shocking events. For example, experience renovated German and Japanese ideas about foreign policy, replacing militarism with reluctance to use force. Laws and traditions limit the size and influence of those nations’ military establishments, which were once powerful supporters of expansive foreign policy.40 The two world wars left even their European victors chary of policies that risk war, at least more chary than the United States, where those wars were less painful.

As discussed earlier, ideologies organize social action. Those with the most at stake—those that stand to receive concentrated material or moral benefits—will tend to dominate ideological debate. But, as social constructs, ideologies are broadly disputed, making consensus hard to achieve. Overly abrupt proposed changes in ideological content will be rejected by other ideological leaders and thus will convince few. Over time, however, ideologies should shift to match the interests of intellectual and political elites.

We can analyze the evolution of American ideas about foreign policy this way. By generating new interests in expansionist foreign policy, as will be discussed, and by lessening and distributing the costs of such policy, growth in relative power helped change ideas. The United States was generally isolationist in its first century of independence because it had little capability to participate in global power politics and wanted to be unmolested by other powers. There was no American empire to promote, and there were European empires to keep out. An army was occasionally raised and a navy kept to that end, but they needed an anti‐​imperial ideology for support. The absence of a permanent military establishment limited support for more expansionist takes on liberal ideology.41 The liberal tradition confused and retarded the embrace of expansion but did not prevent it.

Opportunity and experience were the key causes of the American shift to expansive military policies in the 20th century, particularly after World War II.42 Europe wanted American support against communism, allowing the assertion of American power there. U.S. leaders justified the new expansionist policies by disparaging isolationism and conflating the spread of liberalism with U.S. security.43 Soviet power prevented

U.S. military intervention in some areas, like Eastern Europe and (along with China) discouraged escalation of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The tragic results of Vietnam tempered U.S. enthusiasm for military intervention for the rest of the Cold War. But the Soviet Union did little to prevent interventions in most of the Third World. And communism’s threat encouraged some states to invite U.S. defenses, encouraging interventions. The Soviet Union’s collapse left the United States even less restrained. The Gulf War and the perceived success of the Cold War served the story that advocates of expansive foreign policy told. Those events helped overcome the lingering popularity of insularity. Government support for realpolitik ideas diminished after the Cold War, and foreign policy idealism flourished.

In the course of U.S. history, Americans went from considering liberalism a fragile thing protected at home by isolation to something protected abroad by troops or delivered there by wars of liberation or state repair. That ideological shift produced more threat inflation. It did so because leaders motivated by ideological ends always avail themselves of arguments about the security benefits of their proposed action. There is a feedback mechanism here. As a result of being unrestrained and rich, the United States, in the course of its history, became more active abroad. To promote activist policies, leaders hyped threats and made ideological arguments. Over time, others, including new leaders, came to support those policies because they had learned the ideology, generating more threat inflation.44

Who Hypes What and Why

The United States is likely to adopt foreign policies contrary to its interests if the costs of the policy are diffuse and the benefits are concentrated. The theory discussed in this section can be thought of as the benefit side of that equation. To summarize: expansive defense policies and perception of threats that justify them harm the American public slightly but help the national security establishment.45 The establishment inflates threats to try to convince the public otherwise—that policies conductive to various parochial interests serve the public interest. Because expansive policies’ costs sparsely distribute to everyone as deficits or taxes, few people have an incentive to organize and resist the establishment’s take on threats. An exception is military service members, who bear great cost in the event of war. But professional norms discourage service members from taking vocal anti‐​war stances. So the establishment dominates the creation and interpretation of information about threats. Because the establishment formed in the past and changes with difficulty, it tends to focus on past threats, or threats like them, thus hindering the nation’s ability to react to new types of threats. The president generally compromises with the establishment because of its information advantage and the limited power and time he has to combat it. To sell that compromise, the president echoes the establishment’s threat inflation.

The rest of this section discusses why specific elements of the national security establishment hype threats and encourage the president to do so. The entities discussed include the so‐​called iron triangle—military services, congressional committees, and defense contractors—and intelligence agencies, nongovernmental veterans and military organizations, think tank and academic defense analysts, foreign governments, and the media. Before examining the incentives that influence those groups, a caveat is needed. The claim here is not that people are simply products of their organizational or personal interests, that fidelity to such incentives is an inviolate law of human behavior. People often serve the national interest at the expense of their own. Working in government can be an example. But though people often resist those incentives, they push, pull, and create general tendencies.

The national security establishment is neither a unified entity nor a conspiracy. Its parts have various goals that lead them to compete and promote different dangers. But their interests in exaggerating threats often overlap.46 Les Aspin explained that confluence well:

The ends of MIC Inc. [the military‐​industrial complex] are achieved through 1,001 individual and basically unrelated decisions, which taken together have the effect of a conspiracy without there ever being one. The decisions are taken not only by the services and their contractors, but also by labor unions, local politicians, and a press inflicted with community boosterism. These factotums, who might otherwise be brawling with one and other, rarely link arms in pursuit of the ends of the MIC, but the decisions they take in pursuit of their perceived self‐​interest have the same result. On the other side, there is no other side. The power of a labor union or of a big business is circumscribed by the fact that there are opposite (if not equal) pressures working against it. But the MIC has long functioned in an atmosphere of at best inchoate countervailing pressures.47

Congress and the executive branch share power over defense and foreign policy. The executive, however, has become dominant since the start of the Cold War, thanks largely to congressional acquiescence.48 The executive drives national threat perceptions, though Congress plays a key role under certain circumstances. Within the executive branch, the White House directs security policy, but the president and his staff have limited time and political capital. The real executers of defense policy are the national security agencies, especially the military services.

National Security Agencies

Organizational theory helps us understand why security agencies inflate threats. Successful agencies mature by responding to their political environment, particularly early formative experiences.49 They ensure political and budgetary support by reliably producing whatever outputs they were created to deliver. They motivate employees through promotional tracks and harmonize their actions with common training and standard operating procedures. They maximize autonomy, avoiding reliance on other agencies that might disrupt their ability to achieve their goal. Those adaptations yield a fixed way of doing business or doctrine.50 Doctrine typically consists of various related tasks carried out by specialized personnel, meaning that it requires a division of labor. Divisions of labor are especially important in military organizations because of the complex nature of their work. Those performing the most essential jobs rise to dominate the management structure. Hence, a hierarchy forms around a doctrine. Its maintenance protects the organization’s purpose.51 The organization teaches employees the doctrine’s worth, making it a culture, an ethos, or a mission.

Security agencies inflate threats to preserve public and budgetary support for their mission. Tied by incentive structures to their purpose, organizations pursue it at the expense of economy or truth. It is not that those considerations are ignored, just that they matter less than organizational health, which depends on outside support for its missions. When their preferred threats fade, security organizations will search for new enemies to justify their services. The better the threat fits their doctrine, the more they hype it.

The tendency to promote threats to protect missions is strongest in large and unified organizations such as the U.S. Air Force. The tendency is weaker in smaller and less focused organizations. Fewer resources mean less ability to influence opinion directly and fewer dependents in Congress and industry that share the organization’s view. A divided sense of mission means less incentive to sell a particular threat. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard might hesitate to sell the terrorist threat should counterterrorism force it to shift focus from harbor patrol, one of its traditional missions.

Dedication to purpose makes bureaucratized agencies reliable servants of their goal, but it limits organizations’ ability to respond to new conditions. A new mission would require a new division of labor, resulting in a new hierarchy. Leaders are unlikely to cast themselves and their protégés aside, especially when the current mission has reliably brought outside support, including funding. So government organizations tend to embrace only change that is consistent with their doctrine.52 In national security, that tendency means that organizations will be slow to adapt to the new types of threats. The U.S. Army struggles with counterinsurgency. The Drug Enforcement Agency exists because the Federal Bureau of Investigation was reluctant to chase drug criminals. Agencies will not hype threats that seem to require doctrinal innovation.

Organizations promote threats via congressional testimony, reports, leaks, press conferences and releases, and sponsored research, as well as by feeding information to congressional allies. As autonomy seekers, security agencies prefer to monopolize intelligence assessments about threats that concern them. Where that monopoly is impossible, they use their own intelligence units to inflate their favored threats to compete with other agencies.

Independent intelligence agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency will likely provide more accurate assessments than will military intelligence agencies. Because providing accurate intelligence is the CIA’s mission, it has a greater incentive to assess correctly.53 It checks the military services’ ability to use their intelligence agencies to hype threats. But, for three reasons, independent intelligence agencies bend their analysis toward that of the organizations most relevant to the threats being assessed. First, military intelligence agencies may convince them. Second, the independent intelligence agency may compromise to avoid being out on a political limb. Third, intelligence agencies serve presidents, who are themselves influenced by military preferences about dangers, as discussed later.54

Prestige and secrecy aid military threat inflation. Prestige stems from the rarity of military expertise and the self‐​sacrifice that service members risk. Prestige makes it harder to challenge military assessments, particularly where other military authorities do not contradict them. Secrecy often shields official claims about danger from scrutiny.


Congress has the power to challenge executive branch takes on threats but generally lacks an interest in using it. Constitutional powers to legislate, enact agency budgets, and—in the Senate’s case—approve agency heads give legislators leverage over executive agencies. That leverage can encourage agencies to echo congressional views on dangers or to resist publicizing threat assessments likely to offend their congressional sponsors. Legislators can also directly promote their take on threats. Though congressional committees lack the staff and expertise to evaluate many threats, they can pick their spots. They can produce committee reports, fund outside experts to produce analysis, or request reports from the Government Accountability Office or Congressional Budget Office. They can hold hearings where experts testify about threats. Committee hearings and reports, especially full committees, can generate substantial media coverage.

Congressional power over defense policy is held largely by congressional committees eager to fund the agencies they oversee. Defense authorization and especially appropriations committees function basically as real estate committees that are interested mainly in extracting federal funds for local defense contracts and bases.55 Members typically join defense committees because of a local base or defense production facility, and reliably promote and echo dire assessments that encourage defense spending benefiting that local interest. Where they challenge executive branch assessments, it is usually because they are not sufficiently dire.

Members of congressional defense committees fight mainly about where to locate military bases or produce military goods. But because most locations are settled and the committees must produce an annual compromise among regions in the form of a budget bill, comity prevails.56 Members rarely attack the basis for others’ funds by undermining the threat claims that justify it. That live‐​and‐​let‐​live ethos thrives particularly when defense spending is rising. Budget growth dulls distributional conflicts. Declining budgets force choice, and members then become more likely to attack one another’s arguments, including their portrayal of threats. But norms of accommodation persist, and budgets generally rise.

The Defense Industry

The defense industry does little itself to promote security threats but encourages others to do so. Contractors are too obviously biased to make compelling Cassandras. Their public communications, therefore, tend to include only vague messages about their weapons’ usefulness and economic benefits. Moreover, their expertise lies in moving the government, not the public.57 They mostly leave detailed talk about danger to military personnel, politicians, and the experts that they fund.

Contractors influence Congress—and to a lesser extent the military services—in three ways. First, they sponsor studies by nominally independent analysts. Second, they lobby and make campaign contributions to win congressional support for their work. Members of Congress who receive those funds are more likely to aid contractors and promote threats to justify it. But campaign finance influences lawmakers far less than local jobs, the third source of contractor influence.58 During the Cold War, the distribution of military bases and production contracts, especially those to the burgeoning aerospace industry, gave more U.S. regions and their elected representatives a stake in high defense spending.59 By distributing production facilities and subcontracts, the defense industry encourages politicians to justify their constituency’s spoils with threat inflation. Note, however, that the members themselves press for those jobs, making contractors less the driver of political outcomes than their servant.

Nongovernmental Organizations

Various support communities echo the military services’ take on threats.60 Veterans’ organizations and service support organizations, such as the Air Force Association and Navy League, are composed of people who personally identify with a service. They reflect organizational talking points. The public presence of veterans’ networks in most communities reminds Americans that there are always enemies to defend against.61

The defense establishment’s need for friendly expertise during the Cold War aided the growth of defense analysis in think tanks and, to a lesser extent, among academics. Scholars’ nominal independence and appeal to scientific expertise provide an aura of credibility. Defense analysts reflect the interests and threat assessments of the national security establishment, or a portion of it, for three reasons.

The first is inclination. People who seek careers studying weapons and militaries are more likely than is the general population to believe in the efficacy of using them and thus are more likely to see threats that need defending against. That is typical. Scholars of international development tend to believe in foreign aid. Environmental analysts are usually environmentalists.

The second source of analyst bias is funding. Some nominally independent experts moonlight as paid consultants for defense contractors or investment firms. Others hope to do so and thus avoid saying things that are likely to offend future employers. Many think tanks also rely on Pentagon contracts or congressional allocations for budgetary support. Analysts receiving such funding tend to answer only the questions their sponsors ask and to avoid saying anything that is liable to offend sponsors, including future ones.

Third, careerism encourages think tank analysts to reflect the national security establishment’s threat inflation. Many hope to work in future administrations and thus reliably reflect the threat assessments of one party’s elite. Because both parties typically inflate threats, so do ambitious analysts. Because they are uncertain about patrons’ future ends and might want to find others, they are cautious in their deviations from mainstream views about security issues. Even analysts uninterested in entering government need a sense of danger to be relevant. They are in the national security business too. Without threats, they will have fewer chances to testify before Congress, fewer media invitations, and so forth. So defense analysts have little interest in noting the arrival of safety or placing dangers in context.

Those factors produce selective speech, not necessarily dishonesty. Politically ambitious analysts tend to focus on how to best combat threats, not on whether they should be combated or how pressing they are. They write mostly about operational issues that offend few, rather than taking the riskier track of questioning established goals, such as existing alliances. They learn that it is safer for their careers to warn of dangers other than overreaction. Academic researchers avoid those pressures to the extent that they have different career incentives. They are less a part of what they study.62 They rely less on grants from security agencies and work less often for contractors.

Foreign States

Foreign states encourage American elites to combat their enemies via lobbying, trips arranged for U.S. officials and intellectuals, and publicity campaigns. Because they cannot vote or contribute to campaign coffers, ideological affinity and threat inflation are their main tools to gather support for military aid or commitments. They often conflate their security with Americans’ and embellish their liberalism while casting their rivals as illiberal.

Like other interest groups, foreign lobbies can dominate issue areas that engage no other strong interest. In the language of transaction costs, foreign lobbies reliably succeed until they concentrate costs sufficient to motivate rivals. One sort of concentrated cost that limits foreign lobbies’ effectiveness is war. That is why lobbies can rarely induce Americans to undertake costly acts such as invasions on their behalf.63 But U.S. security is so profound that foreign lobbies can do a lot of mischief before they do enough to awaken powerful resistance. The security loss is typically minor, the consequences remote and hard to understand. U.S. foreign policies serving the ideological affinities of vocal minorities are a luxury that safety often affords.

Long‐​term alliances institutionalize interests that exaggerate the dangers that the alliance counters. The most obvious example is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has generated various justifications for its existence since the Soviet Union collapsed. Foundations and think tanks that are focused on keeping the United States tied to Europe support those threat arguments. Employees and affiliates of those organizations maintain professional and personal ties and fly each other across the ocean for conferences. They all depend to an extent on the notion that the alliance defends against something. Other U.S. alliances, even informal ones such as those with Taiwan and Israel, create similar networks of transnational dependents.

News Media

The media are more like the national security establishment’s microphone than its watchdog.64 The media tend to reflect, rather than evaluate, the threat assessments of the national security elite for three reasons.65 First, reporters are mostly generalists lacking the regional or technical expertise to thoroughly evaluate government claims. They are easily awed by military prestige and knowledge, especially now that the draft is long gone and few reporters have served. Second, media outlets lack incentive to produce skeptical analysis even if they can. They win readers by publishing news quickly. Critical analysis is not their core business. Moreover, hype and alarm attract more readers than caveat and caution.66 Third and most important, information about security threats is usually hard to gather. It often comes from dangerous or remote regions. Collecting it requires skill in foreign languages, an appetite for personal risk, or access to expensive technologies such as satellites that are mostly controlled by states. The information is largely secret and thus centrally controlled. Even when security information is made public, it often requires interpretation from experts, who tend to either work in government or to reflect its biases, for the reasons discussed earlier.

Thus, national security reporting depends on official sources. Those sources can, for example, grant or revoke access to war zones or secret information as a reward for reporting that reflects their views. That dependence creates a culture of accommodation where reporters cultivate and avoid offending sources.

Where official consensus is lacking, the media can play something of a watchdog role. Skeptical reporting increases with divided government, when conflict about policy arises among or within agencies, congressional committees, or executive branch officials.67 Officials in conflict leak information, offer anonymous quotes questioning competing claims, and hold informative hearings to promote their take. Where the media checks official claims about threats, it is typically capitalizing on those schisms and conveying other official doubts rather than discovering it via gumshoe reporting. There is ample conflict in American national security policy, particularly when new policies arise. But consensus about threats generally prevails, preventing the media from helping check threat exaggeration.

The Presidency

The publicity and authority now commanded by the president and his national security appointees in the White House give them considerable power to promote threats. On foreign issues, where Congress plays a relatively small role, presidents have less competition for public attention.68 The president can also use his formal powers—including appointments and budgetary and legislative authority—to pressure agencies to tow his line about threats or at least to avoid contradicting it in public.

Presidents rarely use those powers to combat threat inflation, however. They tend, instead, to echo the national security establishment’s assessments. They do so because their power is more limited than we often imagine. Even in foreign policy, where power resides more in the executive branch, the bureaucracy enjoys considerable latitude. Limits on time, expertise, and popularity check the president’s willingness to persuade others to do his bidding.69 To convince staff members to follow a particular course requires some presidential effort. Firing an official for insubordination is a pain and sometimes a scandal. Forcing an agency to comply with presidential wishes may require various threats and cajolements. Getting congressional cooperation may require public struggle. Any of those acts may burn political capital, which presidents struggle to gather.

Limits on power encourage presidents to choose fights carefully and to compromise with the bureaucracy and Congress on policy issues. The president and his agents are less policymakers than policy custodians who work to manage the compromise that governs particular policy areas and satisfy interested parties. The status quo, having recently gathered enough support to exist, is usually the most attainable compromise and the path of least bureaucratic resistance.70 That working compromise is manifest in budgets.

Once the president compromises and signs a budget, the many policies it contains become his own. Explaining his limited power to alter policy is unlikely to be effective public relations, so presidents will generally choose instead to promote the compromise policy. The easiest way to do so is to repeat the standard arguments in the policy’s favor, which are typically those the agencies already make. The result is that presidential rhetoric about security threats usually reflects the security establishment’s rhetoric. Because the national security establishment, for the reasons given earlier, tends to overstate dangers, so does the president.

Nevertheless, there are exceptional circumstances that push presidents to downplay threats. First, a president advocating military budget cuts has reason to avoid inflating threats and even to acknowledge safety. Second, although a president arguing for war is likely to hype the enemy he hopes to attack, he may play down the threat the war itself poses. Third, a president trying to end a military conflict should have the opposite inclinations. Fourth, if the administration hopes to increase funding to combat a new threat, it may need to shift funds from organizations or functions dealing with old threats to fund the new effort. The president may then play down the old threats.

A Sum of Our Fears?

How do those various actors’ fears conglomerate? To a large extent, they do not. There is considerable competition for resources and power within the national security establishment. That competition encourages competing perspectives about security threats. Because of the way the United States constructs budgets, resource competition increases with bureaucratic proximity. For example, the navy surface fleet’s biggest competitor for dollars is other navy components. Other defense agencies are a secondary concern, and agencies funded in nondefense budgets an even more remote one. Competition also increases with austerity, which heightens tradeoffs among and within defense agencies. As noted, organizations competing for support might debase the risks that rivals peddle so as to eat their rivals’ budgetary lunches.

Still, the interests that make up the national security establishment are more cooperative than competitive. One reason is that budgets rise more often than they fall. Second, strong organizations such as the military services can suppress conflict in their ranks, thereby preventing rifts—or at least publicity about rifts. Third, a similar ethos, colloquially called “jointness,” has infused the Department of Defense, especially since the passage of the Goldwater‐​Nichols legislation in 1986.71 Through various measures, the law encourages cooperation among the services, and prevents open debate. A more important source of jointness is the tradition, dating to the Kennedy administration, where each military service gets about the same share of the defense budget every year.72 The tradition encourages the branches to produce arguments that grow the total defense budget, rather than attacking the relevance of rivals.

Left unchallenged, the overwrought fears that justify U.S. security policy become a kind of social convention, especially among informed elites.73 People adapt their opinions to their peers’ because they learn from them and because conformity is socially easier than dissent. Agreement tends to make people’s views more extreme.74 That problem is particularly acute in Washington’s security debates, where ambition checks dissent. The less threat deflation analysts chance, the less others feel free to echo it.

Conclusion: Prospects for Balance

Threat inflation bridges the gap between what U.S. defense policy is and what it claims to be. U.S. defense policy is an expression of international power and a compromise among jostling entities unified by a preference for military action or spending. U.S. defense policy pretends to be a servant of domestic security.

Power has made the United States more prone to exaggerate security threats. Wealth and safety limited exposure to the international dangers that encourage military restraint. The military actions that power allowed, meanwhile, spawned political interests that prefer ambitious military policies abroad. Those interests inflate threats to convince everyone else that those policies serve the national interest. The threat inflators do not sing together exactly, but their collective voices produce a powerful chorus. Because the voices that are heard mostly benefit from a perception of danger, the world they portray to Americans, especially those who pay attention to the news, is one of swirling dangers. At least during peace, truth about security falls victim to a free‐​rider problem.

Still, U.S. politics, including the current sort, occasionally favor the growth of political interests that are prone to resist threat inflation or even to understate threats. Examination of those conditions points at ways to rebalance debate and improve U.S. security policy. We escape bad security policy not by quixotic attempts to banish organizational and other parochial interests from political debate, but by getting new participants into the fight.

Business interests may oppose threat inflation to avoid military spending and keep down taxes. American capitalists’ laissez‐​faire beliefs traditionally included an anti‐​militarist element that restrained defense spending.75 Those concerns were manifest to an extent in the Bureau of the Budget and survive today, in diminished fashion, in the Office of Management of Budget and congressional budget committees. Those entities lose power because of deficit spending, which obscures the relationship between tax burdens and expenditures. Deficits mitigate the need to raise taxes or cut other government programs to fund the Pentagon, dissipating rivalries that budgetary choices arbitrate. Economic growth has meanwhile made defense spending less burdensome. Deficits and economic growth make business interests and anti‐​tax groups less prone to worry about defense and challenge threat inflation. Those factors also lessen the extent to which powerful domestic interest groups, such as public‐​sector unions and the AARP, see military spending as an obstacle to their priorities.

Recently, however, fiscal imbalances created by the rising costs of entitlement programs, relatively low taxes, and defense spending are bringing those priorities into conflict, especially with the imposition of defense‐​spending caps.76 The historical trajectory of U.S. health care and defense spending, which, if plotted, yields a flattened X—with health care now approaching the 20 percent of GDP consumed by the Pentagon early in the Cold War—suggests that health care will increasingly restrain defense spending, particularly as baby boomers age. Thanks to deficits and the austerity measures that they encouraged, other powerful interests increasingly squeeze the national security establishment’s budget. Some even question the fears that justify it.

War is another major source of interests that oppose threat inflation. Unpopular wars produce backlashes in public opinion and anti‐​war organizing. Those reactions heighten incentives for politicians to oppose the next war, and encourage them to play down threats. War or conflicts that caused such backlashes include Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars created more anti‐​war sentiment than did other wars not because their material or human cost was higher but because they were more controversial.77

Although a small segment of U.S. society fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they encouraged a strong anti‐​war shift in U.S. public opinion.78 That sentiment, combined with austerity’s tendency to create supporters for lower military spending, makes for an unusually receptive audience—in the public and especially among educated elites—for institutional reforms that slow expansionary U.S foreign policy. Those reforms include laws limiting presidential war powers, reductions in information classification, the extension of military spending caps, empowered budgetary agencies, rules that limit Congress’s ability to fund wars through deficits, and—most important—the revival of the anti‐​militarist brand of liberal ideology. Those changes would preserve the hard‐​earned lessons of recent U.S. foreign policy. They would, in other words, keep the benefits of military restraint concentrated and protect the political interests prone to argue for peace and low military spending. That development might not create a more satisfying debate about U.S. security policy, but it would at least provide a more balanced one.

Benjamin H. Friedman

Benjamin H. Friedman was a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies.