Threat Inflation

According to this calculator, one 1989 dollar is the equivalent of nearly two dollars in 2012 money ($1.82, to be precise). What had an intrinsic worth then seems to be even more nowadays. But what are you getting for your money?

That’s a really unsubtle preamble to a simple concept: that of threat inflation since the end of the Cold War (man, the Cold War has apparently been on my mind a lot lately). We talk about the threats posed by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and non-state actors and rogue states and the possibility of state-on-state violence arising once again. But except for wars of choice, the latter two have certainly not materialized, and the more effective parts of our counterterror and counter-VEO strategies have involved a light footprint. A base in Djibouti, an airstrip in Saudi, and you’ve got the makings of a regional proactive defense (the merits of the “SOF-n’-drones approach” are, of course, debatable, but that is a separate issue).

While small, covert actions might point towards a way forward, the simple truth is that these threats in no way pose anything like the existential one represented by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

If you were to make a ranking with relative numbers for budgetary purposes with say, a notional ranking of the hierarchy of threats faced by the United States and the dollar amounts needed to counter them, a Cold War version might have looked something like this (obviously this is really, really crude, but bear with me):

  1. Soviet Union: $50 billion
  2. Soviet Union: $40 billion
  3. Soviet Union: $35 billion
  4. Soviet Union: $30 billion
  5. Soviet Union: $25 billion
  6. Third-world nations: $2 billion
  7. Nuclear proliferation: $1.5 billion
  8. Terrorism/non-state actors: $500 million

By 1992, the top five lines were all wiped out. Or at least, the entry in the threat column was. The sensible thing to do might have been to just lose that funding entirely, much like the how the current DoD hiring freeze is preventing new blood from circulating throughout the Pentagon (when someone retires now, more often than not that billet is lost entirely, rather than being re-filled). No threat = no money necessary to counter it.

To put it another way, what was a $2 billion threat during the Cold War was probably also more or less a $2 billion threat afterwards (in relative terms).

But rather than just wipe out the top five items, budgeted dollars and all, what we get instead is an upwards shift of the bottom-tier threats. What was #6 becomes #1 and so forth – including all the funding commensurate with such a position as a dire threat to the nation.

But of course, neither terrorism nor Iran nor cyberwarfare pose an existential threat to the United States. And that’s really an impediment to policymakers these days. I will grant, that out of all the banal clichés used to describe our modern threat environment, that “complexity” is in fact the case, and is in fact a difficult problem to surmount. The sheer number of threats might have increased – what was once a two-item list of 1) the Soviet Union and 2) everything else has now dramatically expanded – but the relative threat they pose is far, far lower.

DNI Clapper’s opening statement to Congress introducing this year’s Intelligence Community Worldwide Threat Report included the line: “I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Sure, the sheer number looks a little daunting. But that hardly signals the imminent end of the Republic.

Like last year’s report, the 2014 edition singles out cyber as the most critical threat to US national security, and specifically mentions the financial and health care sectors as vulnerable, as well as industrial SCADA, 3D printing, and “smart objects” as potential targets. Which, as they’re new, must be feared.

What are we defending ourselves again? Our life and liberty seem increasingly assured in the face of terrorism (even the Boston bombings have not done injury to the American psyche at large), and our longstanding freedom from invasion remains unchallenged. But what is the business of US national security becoming? Unless the defense establishment of the United States of America wants to embrace a role as digital security guard for Big Finance, or as the ultimate arbiter of just what Americans – that wellspring of ingenuity and innovation – can use a computer to manufacture from the comfort of their home, it seems that grasping for something to defend the nation against has reached increasingly dubious conclusions.

We’ve defined threats in order to match budgets and huge dollar flows, and it’s fairly clear that we’re boxing with shadows and posturing against dreams.  Patrick Porter recently wrote something to this effect for War on the Rocks (his article deals more with the “small world” of globalization and its unintended consequences, but there is a degree of overlap). As usual, Porter’s entire piece is worth reading, but especially:

In the name of taming the dangerous “Global Village,” governments resort to anticipatory war, extraordinary rendition, torture, continual drone strikes and mass surveillance. Instead of containing threats in pursuit of affordable security, the US-led coalition sought to eradicate them in pursuit of absolute security. It set out to destroy rogue regimes, fix broken states, to wipe out terrorism itself. Some now argue that the American President should have an internet “kill switch,” creating a cyber as well as nuclear monarch. The stakes are high.

A closer look shows that the belief in a small world misconceives the security environment. Consider terrorism, supposedly borderless. On 9/11, Al Qaeda attacked under open skies. Yet Bin Laden’s pilots hit America not from Afghanistan, but from forward operating bases such as flight schools in Arizona and meeting houses in Berlin, bases that America quickly shut down. Its training camps and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the US-led coalition destroyed. The unspectacular steps of intensified police work, tighter border controls, international collaboration, the strengthening of the Nunn-Lugar program for locking down “loose” nuclear material, and strengthened airport security widened the space between Al Qaeda and America. For the budding nuclear terrorist, America the “far enemy” has effectively become more distant.

Porter’s piece concludes that this trend “makes us all less powerful, but more secure, than we think.” And if this is the case: what are we all so afraid of?

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