Micah Zenko

Most. Dangerous. World. Ever.

The ridiculous hyperbole about government budget cuts.

Staff Sgt. Sun L. Vega, U.S. Army/Released
Staff Sgt. Sun L. Vega, U.S. Army/Released

Sequestration of the defense budget is a bad policy idea. However, living in denial about the need to prepare for sequestration is nearly as bad. Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), repeatedly reminded military officials last year: "They are obligated to plan for the worst-case scenario. They will not wait until December 2012 in hopes that things get better." However, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed the armed services not to plan for how sequestration could be implemented for over a year, noting, "I can’t plan for something that was designed to be crazy."

In fact, the military is actually pretty good at developing worst-case contingency response plans for any number of foreseeable or crazy crises, using the operations — or "3" — planning staffs at combatant commands and in the Joint Staff. But the Pentagon’s budgetary and programmatic managers did not plan in advance of sequestration, and now they find themselves scrambling to finish the job. In September, Defense Department comptroller Robert Hale said, "We will wait as long as we can to begin this process." Last week, he defended the lack of planning: "If we’d done this six months ago, we would have caused the degradation in productivity and morale that we’re seeing now among our civilians." History will judge whether or not the Pentagon gambled correctly, if the already once-delayed sequestration is triggered as scheduled this Friday.

Instead of planning, Pentagon officials seemed to all reach for their thesauri after the Budget Control Act was passed in August 2011. Civilian and military officials have used a range of colorful terms to decry the joint-White House-Congress manufactured crisis of sequestration: "doomsday mechanism," "fiscal castration," "peanut butter," "stupid," "gun to their heads," "nuts," "irrational," "an indiscriminate formula," "worst possible outcome," "legislative madness," "devastating," "shameful," "reckless," and "absolutely disastrous." During what was supposed to be his final overseas trip — before Senate Republicans delayed Chuck Hagel’s confirmation process — Panetta’s staff appropriately gifted him a plastic meat axe, his favorite metaphor for graphically describing how sequestration would be applied across defense budget.

Besides applying these metaphors while simultaneously defending the necessity and relevance of their service or agency, national security officials have also seized the opportunity to paint the world as increasingly dangerous, unstable, and unpredictable. This casual threat inflation — unquestioned by congressional members and the vast majority of punditry and media outlets — has serious consequences for America’s future foreign policy agenda. Consider these comments from over the past two weeks:

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey informed the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC), "I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been." The next day, he warned the HASC: "There is no foreseeable peace dividend. The security environment is more dangerous and more uncertain." Similarly, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno professed to the SASC, "The global environment is the most uncertain I’ve seen in my thirty-six years of service." Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also concluded in an interview: "In almost 50 years in intelligence, I don’t remember when we’ve had a more diverse array of threats and crisis situations around the world to deal with."

I will not repeat Gen. Dempsey’s questionable threat calculus again in this column. However, it is worth noting that Dempsey has claimed for over a year: "We are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime." Now, Dempsey argues that we are not merely living in the most dangerous moment since his birth in 1952, but since the earth was formed 4.54 billion years ago.

Also appearing before the HASC, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos predicted: "The world we live in right now is very dangerous, and it’s going to be that way for the next two decades." Referring to the relatively responsive capabilities of the Marine Expeditionary Units, Amos added: "I’m not trying to scare everybody, but you have to have a hedge force…to buy time for our national leaders." Given the U.S. military’s terrible track record of predicting future conflicts, we should be skeptical of Amos’s contention of being able to accurately forecast the global security environment through 2029.

(Last week, repeating an earlier assertion, Panetta told reporters at NATO headquarters: "[Cyber] is, without question, the battlefield for the future." But then why does the Pentagon spend less than 1 percent of its (unclassified) budget ($633 billion) on cybersecurity ($3.4 billion)?)

This latest sampling of official threat inflation raises a few questions for citizens to consider about the role of the U.S. national security state.

First, given the historically healthy, prosperous, and secure world, will U.S. officials ever characterize the United States as safe? If not now, when? Dempsey and others contend that due to interconnectivity and the spread of potentially lethal technologies (prominently including computers) to "super-empowered individuals," the world will only become more and more precarious. Over the past 12 years, the number of people connected to the Internet has expanded from 361 million to 2.4 billion. By 2020, there will be 28 billion devices connected to the Internet. By this logic, more connectivity and computers will only lead to increased threats to the United States.

Second, a core justification for maintaining a large peacetime military is to prevent and deter conflict, manage instability, and "to shape the threat, however indefinable it is out there," as Marine Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy noted before Congress in 1992. Recently, Gen. Dempsey warned that one of the consequences of sequestration would be the "progressive contraction of security commitments around the world and a less proactive approach to protecting our interests." But if the world is only becoming progressively more dangerous, despite costly "shaping" commitments around the world, then what is the U.S. military doing wrong? And if the military’s current strategy isn’t working, why would more money make it work? Unless, of course, the United States has limited and diminishing capacity to shape and direct foreign-policy events, in which case a strategic rethink is called for.

Finally, since citizens and elected representatives apparently agree that the world will be forever characterized by looming dangers, the range of possible futures for the United States is markedly constrained. It makes President Obama — a former constitutional law professor — unable or unwilling to answer directly answer "whether or not [a drone strike] is specifically allowed versus citizens within the United States?" It tolerates the costs ($11.3 billion per year) and consequences — public ignorance — of the vast secrecy for drones and a range of other foreign policy activities. It allows for the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and the reauthorization of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for five years (without even minor amendments that would have required estimates of how many Americans had their communications intercepted), not to mention the expansion of broad warmaking powers that continue to accrue within the executive branch.

In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his military-industrial complex farewell address, calling on Americans to "guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," and advocating the forward march "on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment." What was a remarkable speech during the Cold War would be completely unimaginable today from President Obama.

The tolerance for threat inflation in the absence of plausible threats should be questioned and challenged by anyone interested in, or holding a stake in, the future of U.S. foreign policy. It is bizarre and self-defeating that so many people who complain about the erosion of civil liberties at home, continued support for dictatorships abroad, and militarization of foreign policy also allow the world to be so mischaracterized as one of limitless threats and unending instability. Unless you resist the pernicious habit of threat inflation and its attendant costs directly, you will be fighting the controversial strategies and tactics that flow from this flawed diagnosis indefinitely.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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