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August 21, 2012

This Week In Fear-Mongering: The Problem With Ferguson and Frum
Posted by Michael Cohen



As all of you know Niall Ferguson has written an execrable piece of right-wing clap-trap for Newsweek on why President Obama doesn't deserve a second term. 

Others have written about the many issues of fact and analysis in Ferguson's piece, but I want to hit on one point that is not receiving enough attention. In his section on Obama's "failed foreign policy" Ferguson makes the following assertion:

Meanwhile, the fiscal train wreck has already initiated a process of steep cuts in the defense budget, at a time when it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place—least of all in the Middle East.

There are a couple of problems here. First "initiated a process of steep cuts" is a mouthful of a sentence that really should be interpreted as "hasn't happened yet and likely won't." Moreover, the sequestration cuts that Ferguson bemoans were initiated by the same group of House Republicans whose leader, Paul Ryan, Feguson extols as a serious fiscal conservative. It is important to remember that every single time a conservative criticizes President Obama for presiding over cuts to the Pentagon's budget that those potential cuts were signed into law wholly because of the debt limit showdown from last summer, which was initiated by House Republicans. If Ferguson thinks steep defense cuts are a problem - why is he blaming Barack Obama and not Eric Cantor?

The larger issue here, however, is the argument that "it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place." In fact, it is quite clear that the world is a safer place. As the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the most recent Human Security Report indicate; inter-state wars are on a historic decline, the number of violent conflicts, in general, are falling, civilians are far less likely to die in armed conflict (in fact the first decade of this century witnessed fewer deaths from war than any decade in the last century); and there hasn't been a great power conflict in 60 years, “the longest period of major power peace in centuries,” as the Human Security Report puts it. 

In addition, the potential for nuclear conflict - a dominant feature of mid-20th century global politics -- is now almost impossible to imagine. As for terrorism, that too is on the decline. According to the State Department, between 2006 and 2010 the number of deaths caused by terrorism fell by 35 percent - and attacks were down 20 percent. 

Now one is more than welcome to argue that the world is actually quite dangerous, but considering that the empirical evidence points in only one direction - toward a safer world - it is incumbent upon those who make such an argument to explain why the data is hiding an actual dangerous future. Ferguson, not surprisingly, doesn't do that. 

Instead, he makes the insinuation that cuts to the defense budget - which have not yet gone into effect - are risky because of this stated, but unexplored dangerous world. This is of course one of those short-hand cause and effect relationship that is taken as conventional wisdom in Washington. But Ferguson never really explains how cuts to a defense budget that is currently larger than the next 14 countries' defense budgets combined imperils US safety. Or how a defense budget simply being reduced to FY 2007 levels will make America unsafe. Again, it's quite possible that these cuts will put America at risk, but you don't get to just say that without explaining how.

Along these lines comes David Frum, who attempts to defend Ferguson's argument that China will soon pass the United States in total GDP. According to Frum, "The prospect of the U.S. as number 2 is a threat and challenge. So long as China remains a repressive authoritarian oligarchy, the prospect of a world reordered to meet Chinese imperatives is an ugly one. If the outcome cannot wholly be averted, postponing it for another generation ought to be a supreme task for national policy making. And shrugging off Ferguson's grim warning with self assurances about higher U.S. consumer welfare utterly misses the mark: those who have power can take wealth from those who possess wealth, but lose power."

Here's the problem - nowhere does Frum explain how China might actually be a threat to the United States.  One can certainly argue that China poses an economic challenge to the United States, but how is a country that spends one-ninth what the United States spends on its military a threat to America? Considering that the US is a global hegemon and even with planned  defense cuts would almost certainly remain one; and considering that China's power projection is pretty much restricted to the geographical areas near its borders how exactly will Beijing be able to reorder the word to "meet Chinese imperatives"? Moreover, how and why would the Chinese take wealth from the US - and why would they want to? China is a rather large exporter of goods - don't they benefit from a US that is prosperous and wealthy? Indeed one might argue that a wealthier China, more integrated into the larger global economic system, would lessen the opportunity for future conflict. So from that perspective a steadily more prosperous China is not something to fear - but rather to welcome.

But of course I could be wrong and a rising China is a threat and a challenge to the United States. But again if you're going to make this argument then you have to explain how.

Indeed, this is how fear-mongering works - vague fears of foreign threats are raised (a growing Chinese economy, instability in the Middle East, potential defense cuts etc.) but rarely is the connection made between these alleged threats and the intentions and capabilities of so-called enemies and adversaries. Republicans like to warn of the perils of Iran getting a nuclear bomb; what they find harder to do is make the connection between an Iranian nuke and US national security. Why does an Iranian bomb place Americans at risk? How will defense cuts put America in danger? How will a rising China imperil the United States? How does instability in the Middle East make America more unsafe? 

Just saying it's so doesn't make it true.


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