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.