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May 10, 2012

This Week In Threat-Mongering
Posted by Michael Cohen

Homer_the_screamNot surprisingly this week in threat-mongering begins in a usual place - Leon Panetta's mouth. Here he is last Thursday being interviewed by Judy Woodruff:

MS. WOODRUFF:  The U.S. military budget, I understand, is larger than the next 14 countries’ defense budgets combined.  Why does it need to be so big?  In 30 seconds.

SEC. PANETTA:  Judy, we’re facing a lot of threats.  We talked about a lot of those threats.  We’re facing threats from Iran, facing threats from North Korea, we’re facing threats from terrorism.  We’re still in war in Afghanistan.  We’re continuing to have turmoil in the Middle East.  We’re facing cyber attacks.  We’re facing a number of challenges.  We have to protect this country.  That’s my job.  That’s what I’m paid to do and that, thank God, is what the United States military does.

This is the classic 'here's a bunch of big scary words that are intended to convince you the world is really unsafe, but when you parse out what I've said my comment doesn't actually make any sense.'

On Iran, the most recent IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program suggests that Iran is not currently constructing a bomb, has not clearly decided to build one and even if they did would be years away from being able to deploy no less use it to attack the United States. In fact, here is Leon Panetta saying in February that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear bomb? Here he is in January saying that sanctions against Iran are working. So how exactly is the US facing "threats from Iran"? And might the effective use of international sanctions against Iran suggest that the US military budget doesn't necessarily need to be that big?

How about the threats from North Korea - the same country that saw its recent missile launch end in disaster and was caught displaying fake mobile missile launchers at a recent military parade. How is the United States currently facing a threat from North Korea? For 60 years, North Korea's territorial ambitions on the Korean peninsula have been curtailed. Why is that at risk of changing any time soon?

And while we are still at war in Afghanistan it was Panetta himself who revealed that the US would be ending combat operations in the middle of 2013. He is also the person who said that al Qaeda's demise was within America's reach. And as for cyber attacks . . . well perhaps the less said the better. Panetta is right that the US is facing challenges, but when it comes to actual threats, there's no actual there . . . there.

Even less compelling than the threat mongering of Leon Panetta is the case for building a defense shield to protect the East Coast from incoming missiles. Still that hasn't stopped House Republicans from pushing exactly such a plan:

A new Republican plan to set up a missile defense site on the East Coast has attracted election-year fireworks, with Democrats accusing the GOP of pushing the idea to undercut President Obama’s national-security credentials. 

Democrats say Republicans are playing politics, but GOP members hit back saying the site is necessary to get ahead of the rising threat of Iran’s missile development and to plug a gap in U.S. missile defenses.

Now this appears to be nothing more than election-year politics, which of course is what drives so much of the "threat-mongering industrial complex" (trademark pending). But the Hill article on this plan did feature this precious quote from Cong. Michael Turner:

“You cannot open a newspaper or turn on a TV … without seeing a story of the rising threat from Iran and North Korea to mainland United States,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee that included the East Coast interceptor language.

“With these emerging threats it is inevitable that an East Coast site will be necessary in order to ensure we have the ability to lessen the threats from both Iran and North Korea,” Turner told The Hill.

Here's my public dare to Michael Turner - find me a single newspaper article or TV news report that details the "rising threat" that Iran and North Korea represent not just to the United States . . . but to the East Coast of the United States? If you currently cannot open a paper or turn on the TV without seeing such a story, I have no doubt that I will lose this dare.

Finally, there is word that shockingly, Adm. William H. McRaven, who heads the US special operation command . . . thinks we should be spending more money on US special operations forces. According to McRaven in a draft paper that is circulating at the Pentagon and mysteriously leaked to the LA Times:

"We are in a generational struggle. For the foreseeable future, the United States will have to deal with various manifestations of inflamed violent extremism. In order to conduct sustained operations around the globe, our special operations forces must adapt."

"Non-state actors, such as [Al Qaeda], will increasingly threaten our national security," notes an unsigned staff memo attached to the documents. "They will establish bases in places not under sovereign control. Moving easily across political boundaries and merging with indigenous populations, these non-state actors will seek to exploit our vulnerabilities."

This is so 2006-2007. Indeed this vision of al Qaeda's ability to operate with virtual ease, across borders and practically in perpetuity very much runs counter to what we currently know about al Qaeda's restrained capabilities and shrinking areas of operation. This isn't to suggest that terrorism will disappear completely, but rather the notion that such actors will "increasingly threaten our national security." 

But what is most troubling about McRaven's plan is that it would significantly expand the power of the special operations command and indeed place them outside the normal chain of command.

McRaven's aides insist that the elite teams would remain under the direct day-to-day control of Pentagon regional commanders once deployed. But under his plan, McRaven would have greater authority to move forces and resources instead of merely responding to requests from regional commanders.

"Who better to say where special operations forces should be than the commander of Special Operations Command, with years of experience behind him?" asked one aide, defending the plan.

I can think of a few folks. This is a terrible idea; but let's be clear it's an idea born out of an over-inflated view of the actual threat facing the United States. Ones that are hyped up from the Secretary of Defense on down.


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