Voice

Most. Dangerous. World. Ever.

The ridiculous hyperbole about government budget cuts.

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.

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

National Security

The Signal and the Noise

Why subtlety and national security don't mix.

Before Congress took a well-earned nine day recess, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to consider the nominations of two generals to lead Central Command and Africa Command. Senator Lindsey Graham asked the Central Command nominee, General Lloyd Austin: "If...we pick a [troop] number in Afghanistan that makes it a high likelihood of failure, that would be sending the wrong signals, do you agree, to the Iranians?" Austin replied: "I would, sir. I would agree with that."

Later, Gen. Austin observed of cutting forces from the Middle East: "Once you reduce the presence in the region, you could very well signal the wrong things to our adversaries." Sen. Kelly Ayotte echoed his observation, claiming that President Obama's plan to withdraw 34,000 thousand U.S. troops from Afghanistan within one year "leaves us dangerously low on military personnel...it's going to send a clear signal that America's commitment to Afghanistan is going wobbly." Similarly, during a separate House Armed Services Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ominously warned of the possibility of sequestration: "Perhaps most important, the world is watching. Our friends and allies are watching, potential foes -- all over the world."

These routine and unchallenged assertions highlight what is perhaps the most widely agreed-upon conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign and national security policymaking: the inherent power of signaling. This psychological capability rests on two core assumptions: All relevant international audiences can or will accurately interpret the signals conveyed, and upon correctly comprehending this signal, these audiences will act as intended by U.S. policymakers. Many policymakers and pundits fundamentally believe that the Pentagon is an omni-directional radar that uniformly transmits signals via presidential declarations, defense spending levels, visits with defense ministers, or troop deployments to receptive antennas. A bit of digging, however, exposes cracks in the premises underlying signaling theories.

There is a half-century of social science research demonstrating the cultural and cognitive biases that make communication difficult between two humans. Why would this be any different between two states, or between a state and non-state actor? Unlike foreign policy signaling in the context of disputes or escalating crises -- of which there is an extensive body of research into types and effectiveness -- policymakers' claims about signaling are merely made in a peacetime vacuum. These signals are never articulated with a precision that could be tested or falsified, and thus policymakers cannot be judged misleading or wrong.

Paired with the faith in signaling is the assumption that policymakers can read the minds of potential or actual friends and adversaries. During the cycle of congressional hearings this spring, you can rest assured that elected representatives and expert witnesses will claim to know what the Iranian supreme leader thinks, how "the Taliban" perceives White House pronouncements about Afghanistan, or how allies in East Asia will react to sequestration. This self-assuredness is referred to as the illusion of transparency by psychologists, or how "people overestimate others' ability to know them, and...also overestimate their ability to know others." 

Policymakers also conceive of signaling as a one-way transmission: something that the United States does and others absorb. You rarely read or hear critical thinking from U.S. policymakers about how to interpret the signals from others states. Moreover, since U.S. officials correctly downplay the attention-seeking actions of adversaries -- such as Iran's near-weekly pronouncement of inventing a new drone or missile -- wouldn't it be safer to assume that the majority of U.S. signals are similarly dismissed? During my encounters with foreign officials, few take U.S. government pronouncements seriously, and instead assume they are made to appease domestic audiences.

At the same time, the range of acceptable national security signals is a very narrow spectrum framed by "strong" on one end and "weak" on the other. The former is always characterized as the preferred communication, while the latter is dismissed pejoratively. As a result, the constant need to signal American strength is the overriding justification and/or objective for more -- more spending, more troops, more carrier battle group tours, etc. But since only weak or strong can be indicated, officials never ask if some foreign policy activity will signal whether the United States is wise, hypocritical, just, or moral.

Finally, it is ironic that many of the biggest advocates of non-verbally signaling intentions to adversaries also believe that the United States must never actually communicate directly with them. For these policymakers, speaking to an adversary face-to-face is a "reward" that should be withheld, and one that is much less effective than indefinitely stationing tens of thousands of U.S. troops in a neighboring country.

There is little doubt that the United States -- due to its military power, range of self-generated global interests, and perpetual state of warfare -- is more closely watched and studied than any other state on earth. However, what outsiders think about the United States based on national security debates on Capitol Hill and U.S. foreign policy actions is beyond the control of Washington. There are specific strategies, missions, and tasks that U.S. servicemembers and diplomats are sent abroad to achieve. Signaling, as a justification in itself, should not be one of them given its significant costs and inherent limits -- though it might be worth trying.

In 1977, the United States sent two Voyager spacecraft on a mission to "conduct closeup studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn's rings, and the larger moons of the two planets." Only intended to last five years, both Voyagers are now more than nine million miles from earth, sending back information on an open-ended interstellar mission of discovery. Attached to each are identical gold-plated copper records. The records' contents, developed by a committee chaired by astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, included: greetings in 55 languages, various natural and human-generated sounds (including one hour of author Ann Druyan's brain waves compressed into one minute), music samplings from around the world, 115 images encoded in analog form, and instructions for how to play the record for extraterrestrial life forms.

Sagan later warned, "Many, perhaps most, of our messages will be indecipherable. But we have sent them because it is important to try." Indeed, it was important to try signaling this information to aliens, though notably it was never the primary mission or justification for the Voyager probes, nor done with any expectation of success. Moreover, listening to the golden records -- much like listening to signaling claims in Washington -- communicates much more about who we are to us, than it ever could to anyone, or anything, else.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images