High Anxiety: How Washington’s Exaggerated Sense of Danger Harms Us All

December 10, 2019 • Study
US Troops with an American Flag

High Anxiety: How Washington’s Exaggerated Sense of Danger Harms Us All

December 10, 2019 • Study


The United States is arguably both the safest nation in the world and among the most fearful. An unremitting hysteria permeates the news media, public opinion, and especially, the policymaking process. National security discourse generally depicts trivial threats as existential ones and, through overapplication, has so neutered the meaning of “threat” that almost any phenomenon, foreign or domestic, can qualify. The resources Washington devotes to mitigate these “threats” are correspondingly disproportionate, and the policies enacted to combat them are often counterproductive. The result is an overly aggressive, militarized foreign policy that wastes taxpayer money, provokes international hostility, instigates unnecessary wars, and erodes constitutional checks on the exercise of arbitrary power here at home.

Humans are enjoying longer, healthier, and better lives. Nearly 100 million people died in major wars in the first half of the 20th century, but the leading states have managed to avoid direct military conflicts since 1945. In fact, interstate war, the norm throughout much of history, has almost ceased to exist. Conquest, too, has largely become a thing of the past. Many were shocked by Russia’s brazen annexation of Crimea in 2014, but we should recall that from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, there was roughly one conquest every 10 months. The average amount of territory conquered in this period equaled about 11 Crimeas per year. Today, conquest is extremely rare: according to Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, since World War II, the chance that a given state would suffer a conquest fell from once in a lifetime to once or twice a millennium. Even the great scourge of terrorism is not unusually threatening today: in the West, it was much more common, and on average much more deadly, in the 1970s and ’80s. And while ethnic violence and civil wars continue around the world, Harvard’s Steven Pinker explains that “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

And yet, you would never know it judging from the statements of U.S. government officials. Apparently, that is exactly the way they want it. In February 2017, newly installed White House press secretary Sean Spicer explained, “What we need to do is to remind people that the Earth is a very dangerous place these days.” Other Trump administration officials complied with Spicer’s instructions. In April of that year, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly described the terrorist threat in sensational, ominously existential terms: “We are under attack from terrorists both within and outside of our borders.… They have a single mission, and that is our destruction. And I tell you, without exaggeration, they try to carry out this mission each and every single day, and no one can tell you how to stop it. No one.”

Despite such warnings—and the Trump administration’s policies—nothing appears to have changed over the next two years. Indeed, judging from Trump’s own appointees, the problem seems only to be getting worse. In March 2019, for example, acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan warned, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that “the world continues to get more dangerous.”

Unsurprisingly, Americans focus mostly on the world’s dangers: 77 percent think ISIS is an existential threat. They worry about North Korea and Iran, too.

And, of course, they worry about China. It seems as though nearly everyone is on that game. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) opined of China: “I’m not sure in the 240‐​year history of this nation that we’ve ever faced a competitor and potential adversary of this scale, scope, and capacity.” Not to be outdone, a front‐​page headline in the Washington Times warns: “China has power to crush U.S. in Pacific within hours.”

A 2018 Government Accountability Office list of long‐​range emerging threats, assembled from a survey of four federal agencies, includes 26 entries in four broad categories.

Surely, there are national security concerns worth preparing for, but we should all strive to keep things in perspective. When politicians or members of the media ignore the context, or claim that a particular danger is greater than anything we have ever faced, the rest of us are entitled to a degree of skepticism.

A Brief History of Threat Inflation

Scholars have a term to describe rhetoric that gets ahead of the facts. According to Jane Cramer and A. Trevor Thrall, “threat inflation is the attempt by elites to create concern for a threat that goes beyond the scope and urgency that a disinterested analysis would justify.”

Throughout history, nation‐​states have tended to initiate risky, unnecessary, or counterproductive wars to eliminate exaggerated dangers. During the colonial era, erroneous reports of a French incursion into the Allegheny Mountains led to even more hysterical fears of an imminent invasion of all of British North America. The resulting Seven Years’ War (1756–63) eventually spread as far as the Caribbean, West Africa, and South Asia. Several decades later, British policymakers grew worried that Russia had aggressive designs, and they launched the Crimean War to set them straight. As Stephen Van Evera observes, 45,000 British lost their lives “to avert a Russian threat that existed largely in the imagination of the British government.” In the early 20th century, Wilhelm II convinced himself and other German policymakers that dangers were pressing in on them from all sides. Such worries eventually precipitated a crisis in the Balkans that spiraled into a global war and, ultimately, the demise of several empires—including Wilhelm’s own Hohenzollern dynasty.

The Red Menace

More recently, the Cold War spawned a dark age of threat inflation in the United States. Hyperbolic assessments of the Soviet menace shaped national security policymaking as Americans contemplated life under the shadow of thermonuclear Armageddon. The lesson decisionmakers took from World War II was that potential threats had to be confronted early and relentlessly. Sometimes it is possible to underestimate threats at grave cost—as was the case with Europe’s early responses to Hitler’s Third Reich. Any slackening of the pressure on Moscow, U.S. officials therefore assumed, would simply encourage aggression.

But the threat inflation in the early Cold War generated policy overreactions, including wasteful defense spending, a dangerous arms buildup, and myriad interventions in the periphery. Cold War fearmongering also produced a kind of political and cultural paranoia, epitomized by the McCarthyism of the 1950s, which often resembled the mass hysteria that characterized the Salem witch trials.

When the Truman administration wanted to convince Congress to fund the looming Cold War, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) urged the president to “scare hell out of the American people.” And that is precisely what the administration did. Army General Lucius Clay, the U.S military commander of Berlin, admitted years later that his superiors solicited a cable from him in 1948 warning that war in Europe could come with “dramatic suddenness,” even though nothing in Moscow’s posture indicated that such a war was in the offing.

The perceived Soviet threat in those years was to a substantial degree predicated on the expectation that Moscow was committed to expansion, and very likely outright military aggression in Europe. This depiction sometimes conflicted with contemporaneous intelligence assessments about Soviet capabilities and intentions and, as it turns out, was basically wrong. “The Soviet archives,” writes Robert Jervis, “have yet to reveal any serious plans for unprovoked aggression against Western Europe, not to mention a first strike on the United States.”

Threat perceptions at the time by no means reflected what we now know. In 1950, a now‐​famous National Security Council (NSC) document spelled out the danger posed by the Soviet Union. It spoke of the uncompromising hostility of the Soviet regime, whose very existence posed a constant and tangible threat to U.S. security. “The Soviet Union … is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own,” NSC 68 explained, “and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” The Kremlin represented the “deepest peril.” At stake was “the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.” These threats will “crowd in on us … so as to give us no choice, ultimately, between meeting them effectively or being overcome by them.” The solution? A militarized response to Soviet aggression, or active measures to deter such aggression, and a massive increase in military spending.

Drafted by Paul Nitze and others within the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, and overseen by Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson, NSC 68 was replete with frightening visions of the imminent demise of America’s free society. Acheson later explained that “the purpose of NSC-68 was to so bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’ that not only could the President make a decision but that the decision could be carried out.” The administration needed to make the case “clearer than truth,” he added. In other words, they deliberately inflated the threat in order to centralize decisionmaking power in the office of the president and intimidate the bureaucracy to acquiesce to an indefinite war‐​footing. Such a posture was unprecedented in U.S. history and therefore might have been expected to encounter resistance—unless the threat was broadly understood in existential terms.

Looking back on NSC 68, and the impact that it had on the ensuing Cold War and well beyond, historian Andrew Bacevich couldn’t conceal his dismay. Whereas some thinkers have pointed to NSC 68 as a model of a “coherent grand strategy” to be emulated, Bacevich saw mostly “extreme agitation laced with paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and a cavalier disregard to empirical truth” and that “to read NSC 68 today is to enter a hothouse of apprehension, dread, and panic … NSC 68 was an exercise in fearmongering, which has remained the stock‐​in‐​trade of Wise Men from Nitze’s day to the present.”

Sometimes partisan politics, rather than internal bureaucratic skullduggery, drives threat inflation. The Eisenhower administration came under fire from an array of ambitious politicians—most notably John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts—for failing to keep pace with the purported Soviet arms buildup. Critics claimed that the Soviet Union had raced ahead of the United States in the development of long‐​range bombers and missiles. Although Eisenhower was constrained in publicly contradicting this accusation, the reality was that there was indeed a missile gap—in the United States’ favor. Overhyped fears of the Soviet threat thus promoted widespread beliefs about its superiority that were not merely “clearer than truth” but the inverse of the truth.

During his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy continued to cite the nonexistent Soviet missile advantage and vowed to spend much more than his predecessor to accelerate the development of nuclear delivery vehicles and warheads. As president, he refused to reverse course, even after he was informed in classified settings that it was the United States that actually had the lead. Instead, he made good on his campaign promises and swiftly increased spending and acquisitions. This then prompted heightened fear in Moscow, which soon reciprocated with a rapid arms buildup of its own.

But Cold War fears went well beyond the looming arms race between the two superpowers. The desire to halt the spread of global communism also led to costly ventures abroad, including most notably a war in Southeast Asia that claimed over 58,000 American lives—plus the lives of as many as 3 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians. U.S. policymakers also made common cause with a host of dubious allies, including authoritarian rulers and murderous insurgent groups—always telling themselves that the Faustian bargains made sense because the alternatives posed a threat to U.S. national security.

The Post‐​Cold War World

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet empire dissolved, the United States lost its primary geopolitical adversary. The threat that was the central driver of an unprecedented growth in the national security bureaucracy and rampant military interventionism essentially evaporated. Rather than modulate policies and spending accordingly, top U.S. officials saw this as a problem to be overcome. “One of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced,” Colin Powell recalled in 2012, “was when the Cold War ended.… We lost our best enemy at that time,” he explained. “Our whole structure depended on there being a Soviet Union that might attack us, and it was gone.”

Although the George H. W. Bush administration, in which Powell also served, did cut military spending and reduce the number of forces deployed overseas, U.S. grand strategy actually expanded in the vacuum created by the loss of what Powell called our “best enemy.” Policymakers found an array of international concerns—including ethnic warfare, so‐​called rogue states, the drug trade, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—that could be portrayed as major threats to U.S. and global security, and thereby justify large military budgets and far‐​reaching interventions.

Rather than acknowledge America’s peerless power position and fundamental security, policymakers mixed triumphalism with fear‐​mongering. “The new world is more free but less stable,” Bill Clinton warned in his inaugural address. Clinton’s CIA director James Woolsey was similarly anxious: “We have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.” Then outgoing CIA director Robert Gates echoed these sentiments, saying the loss of our Cold War adversary “led to a far more unstable, turbulent, unpredictable, and violent world.”

In the 10 years following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, from November 1989 to November 1999, the U.S. military embarked on a dizzying array of overseas missions. The Congressional Research Service counted over 60 “significant” deployments to nearly two dozen countries during this period, including major combat operations in Panama (1989), Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Iraq (1990–1991), Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1992–1993), and the air and ground campaigns in the former Yugoslav territories of Bosnia and Kosovo (1995–1999), as well as lesser missions in Albania, Central African Republic, Congo, East Timor, Gabon, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania. During the Cold War, fear that such interventions on the periphery might escalate into full‐​blown war with the Soviet Union and its proxies tempered Washington’s meddlesome impulses. In the unipolar era, by contrast, the United States faced no such constraint. Fear that even small disturbances in distant lands might upset the delicate post‐​Cold War order led to a degree of military hyperactivity never before seen in U.S. history.

The Global War on Terror

The traumatic 9/11 attacks shocked national security decisionmakers who became convinced that America was in for a series of such attacks on that scale—and that unprecedented measures were necessary to thwart them. The understandable alarmism led to credulous treatment of virtually any threat from raw intelligence and, collectively, a gross overestimate of the number of active al Qaeda operatives in the country. “The want of actionable intelligence combined with a knowledge of what might happen,” wrote Jack Goldsmith, a legal adviser at the Department of Defense at the time, “produced an aggressive, panicked attitude that assumed the worst about threats.”

Resources in defense, intelligence, and law enforcement were redirected to focus on terrorism, and Congress authorized a flood of new funds to expand existing counterterrorism capacities. It turned out to be an overreaction. Applying standard cost‐​benefit risk analysis, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart calculated that in order to justify the annual post‐​9/​11 homeland security expenditures of about $75 billion, “there would have to have been 300 attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing each year.” While some terrorist plots were certainly thwarted in these years, the intense focus and vast expenditures on counterterrorism cannot possibly have foiled a Boston Marathon‐​size attack that, in the absence of such security measures, would have occurred nearly every single day.

Disproportionate fear of terrorism also drove threat inflation on more conventional concerns, most notably toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The latter was unrelated to the former, a key fact that many advocates for war worked diligently to obscure. The case for war against Iraq rested on flimsy claims that Baghdad not only possessed weapons of mass destruction but was poised to use them against the United States and its allies, likely in coordination with millenarian jihadist terrorists. Administration officials repeatedly suggested in high‐​profile public comments that failure to act soon could result in mushroom clouds erupting over American cities. To accept these alarmist claims, one had to view Hussein as undeterrable and irrational in the extreme—suicidal even—which did not accord with his history.

At times, the Bush administration’s misdirection when it came to Iraq’s al Qaeda ties bordered on outright deception. For example, on December 9, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney on NBC’s Meet the Press pointed to “a report that’s been pretty well confirmed” that 9/11 lead hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague several months before the attacks. In fact, the CIA had concluded that no such meeting had occurred. Bush administration officials also propagated unsubstantiated claims from Iraqi defectors that al Qaeda terrorists had practiced airplane hijackings at a training camp near the Iraqi city of Salman Pak. At the time, information from the Defense Intelligence Agency that disputed such claims was suppressed. In 2006, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that there were “no credible reports since the war” to substantiate pre‐​war claims of al Qaeda training camps in Iraq.

Another case of phony evidence being used to hype the Iraqi threat was Powell’s speech before the United Nations on February 4, 2003, in which he alleged that Iraq had an active chemical‐​weapons program that it was concealing from the prying eyes of international inspectors. As with the claims of Saddam’s links to 9/11, however, these allegations proved false.

The case for war against Iraq was created to mislead the American people. This often involved hyping the threat and politicizing or circumventing the considered judgments of intelligence professionals and regional experts. “We were being asked to do things and make sure that that justification [Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction] was out there,” explains John Brennan, then deputy director of the CIA. Veteran CIA analyst Paul Pillar agrees that “a policy decision clearly had been made” and that intelligence was expected “to support that decision.”

Voices on the outside also stoked public fear. A letter organized by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan’s Project for a New American Century asserted that “Iraq has harbored terrorists … and it maintains links to the al Qaeda network.… If we do not move against Saddam Hussein and his regime,” the letter continued, “the damage our Israeli friends and we have suffered until now may someday appear but a prelude to much greater horrors.”

We cannot know what horrors Saddam Hussein might have cooked up had he remained in power, but we do know the costs incurred—so far—from the war that toppled him: over 4,400 U.S. military and Department of Defense civilians killed and nearly 32,000 wounded. American taxpayers have spent more than $2 trillion, and the war’s final tally, including disability payments to veterans and their families over the next several decades, could eventually rise to $6 trillion. Proponents’ estimates of these costs had been low by at least two orders of magnitude. Meanwhile, estimates of the number of Iraqis killed range well into the hundreds of thousands.

Why It Happens

The causes of threat inflation are numerous. First, America’s outsize power allows policymakers to adopt expansive foreign policy goals that call for constant U.S. intervention. Because the United States is wealthy and safe, it has plenty of available resources to allocate to such policies. And since most Americans are insulated from the direct costs, domestic political opposition is difficult to sustain, especially if the stakes are embellished. Thus, America’s global network of security commitments—protecting Europe, stabilizing the Middle East, containing China, and so on—require justification, which the public inevitably receives in exaggerated form.

Second, seven decades of pursuing these expansive foreign policy goals has created an intellectual class in Washington devoted to the underlying precepts of the strategy. To generate support for military activism, especially in a constitutional system prone to lethargy, officials exaggerate the impact of overseas problems on U.S. security. Over time, new generations of elites become socialized to accept the myth‐​making that came before, harden it into an ideology, and reinforce its dominance in the marketplace of ideas.

Third, America’s expansive foreign policy has created concentrated benefits for both public and private organizations, which in turn leads them to take active measures to sustain those benefits, often through threat inflation. The military‐​industrial complex has a strong interest in promoting the idea that the United States is imperiled. More than 70 years of primacy has also enabled the growth of a truly massive national security bureaucracy committed to its own survival. When existing departments are tasked with a new mission, or when agencies are erected to confront new problems, decisionmakers establish perverse incentive structures in which actors are highly motivated to preserve their piece of the budgetary pie. In addition to fighting over finite resources, many of those working in the national security bureaucracy are intensely interested in avoiding blame if disaster strikes. One way to do that is to warn loudly and act against even unlikely threats, thinking it’s better to do too much than not enough.

Fourth, politics gives the advantage to the hawks. To avoid sounding weak or passive, policymakers inflate threats. Cramer argues that norms around “militarized patriotism” led Democrats to support the Bush administration’s case for war against Iraq, despite their own doubts. Making the case against war, the thinking went, would be politically costly. The political benefits that appear to favor action over inaction—and thus war over peace—may be related to what Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon call “hawkish biases,” including “a propensity for suspicion, hostility and aggression.” They explain: “Actors who are susceptible to hawkish biases are not only more likely to see threats as more dire than an objective observer would perceive, but are also likely to act in a way that will produce unnecessary conflict.”

Fifth, the news media are complicit in official threat inflation. As the old saying goes, if it bleeds it leads. Scary stories of impending threats sell newspapers and boost viewership, meaning major media organizations have a direct commercial interest in hyping threats. What’s more, the media’s focus on present dangers are almost entirely devoid of context and an inability to compare today’s threats with those of an earlier era; hence, claims that we are living in the most dangerous moment in human history—though demonstrably untrue—typically pass without comment.

The nation’s founders understood the dangers of alarmism and threat inflation. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison postulated “a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad.” He and others struggled mightily to constrain the power of the state, but classical liberals’ efforts have almost always been thwarted by public anxieties. If war is the health of the state, so is its close cousin, fear. America’s foreign policy in the 21st century serves as compelling evidence of that. Arguably the most important task, for those who oppose America’s apparently constant state of war, is to correct the threat inflation that pervades national security discourse. When Americans and their policymakers understand that the United States is fundamentally secure, U.S. military activism can be reined in, and U.S. foreign policy can be reset accordingly.

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