Exaggeration Nation

The threat posed by the Islamic State to the United States is being overblown to a dangerous -- and untruthful -- degree. So why are we letting our government officials get away with it?


The habitual practice of threat inflation as a means of catalyzing focus on new enemies in U.S. foreign-policy debates has become so commonplace that it now goes unnoticed no matter how absurd.

On Nov. 13, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was asked by Rep. Loretta Sanchez why the United States would be able to successfully train Iraqi security forces this time, when it had done poorly in training both Afghan and Iraqi forces in the recent past. Hagel did not address the question directly, but provided what should be seen as an astonishing statement:

"Let’s start with ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and the threat of ISIL and what it represents. I’ve said before this committee, I’ve said in other places, and believe it absolutely. We’ve never seen a threat like ISIL before. The comprehensive threat that ISIL represents — the sophistication, the armaments, the strategic knowledge, the funding, the capacity, the ideology — it’s new. The threat is significantly worse than we’ve seen ever before, not just in Iraq, but in the Middle East."

Hagel fills a tremendous number of roles and shoulders a great many responsibilities in leading the Pentagon, which might explain this extreme characterization. However, as he readily admitted last week, he has previously used similar language in describing the terrorist group. For example, in August, he designated the Islamic State (IS) "an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else…. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything."

Furthermore, to more consistently represent his views, Hagel has likewise portrayed the threats from other sources inaccurately, stating that "cyber threats, which are relatively new … are just as real and deadly and lethal as anything we’ve ever dealt with." (Last year, an estimated 37,992 people died in armed conflicts, and zero from cyberattacks.) Therefore, Hagel’s depiction of IS should be viewed with skepticism. Given that, under law, Hagel exercises "authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense" it is particularly worrisome that he holds and expresses these opinions.

Government officials routinely mischaracterize and inflate the threats posed to the United States in order to catalyze public opinion and ensure congressional acquiescence to the latest foreign military intervention. Yet neither the public nor members of Congress should accept such language, because it is both deeply misleading and factually wrong. Of course, the United States has faced any number of threats that were far more sophisticated, well-armed, better funded, and larger — the Soviet Union is one notable, superpower-sized example. It is also completely incorrect to contend that IS is an imminent threat to every interest, or even directly to the United States itself. As several U.S. intelligence officials have now declared: "We have no credible information that [the Islamic State] is planning to attack the homeland of the United States."

I have thought a great deal about why senior officials so routinely engage in threat inflation that is so starkly at odds with reality. I have no good answer, because it is impossible to read minds or understand the micro motivations of such officials. However, the practical reason is simple: They are rarely confronted nor are they held accountable by their peers, congressional members, or the media for continually making such erroneous assertions. Even during Thursday’s hearing, Sanchez responded apologetically by stating: "But, Mr. Secretary, I’m not — I understand the threat of ISIL."

The other matter that allows threat inflation to go unchallenged is the absence of any historical context, or reference to the many greater threats that the United States has confronted. It is as if all previous adversaries and wars — of which there have been hundreds of various sizes and durations since 1798 — are forgotten. Thus, every new challenge becomes the greatest threat ever, and, in the speeches and comments by civilian and military officials — as I have pointed out previously — the world only ever gets more and more dangerous. Strangely, nobody ever asks why all of the earlier U.S. foreign-policy activities around the world have resulted in this allegedly always more perilous existence.

On Veterans Day, Hagel, a Vietnam veteran himself, offered some especially thoughtful remarks at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After emphasizing the vital need to remember and honor those veterans who gave their lives in service to their country, he reminded those in attendance "to be honest in our telling of history," and to "always question our policies that send our citizens to war, because our nation’s policies must always be worthy." Hagel’s advice is both brave and essential to bear in mind, given how many wars the United States has fought on faulty premises, a misunderstanding of cultures and its enemies’ motivations, and an inability to learn from its mistakes. The first step to avoiding this costly and disastrous outcome yet again is to envision America’s latest enemy more accurately and honestly. If officials are allowed by default to use absolutist language when depicting IS, then every conceivable policy response can be justified and defended. We owe our future veterans nothing less.

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