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January 29, 2013

This Week In Threat-Mongering - The Ted Koppel Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Bart FearWhen it comes to international relations and the nature of potential threats facing the United States there is generally a single default mode embraced by the pundit community – be afraid. To listen to both foreign policy professionals and those with just a glancing understanding of global affairs is to be presented with an image of the world that is one of great complexity and uncertainty as well as unceasing and ever-worsening threats, particularly to the United States.

Case in point: this week’s Meet The Press and in particular the embarrassing, misinformed stentorian pronouncements of former ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel. If you’ve been wondering what Koppel has been doing since he left late night television, ‘taking time to understand the world as it is today’ has clearly not been high on his agenda.

As the discussion on Meet The Press turned to foreign affairs (as discussed by five people who have little to no background in the issue) Koppel was asked to weigh in by host David Gregory – and the results were gruesome.

Here was Koppel’s opening salvo: “We’re entering one of the most dangerous periods this country has ever known.”

This is simply and unequivocally not true (and is completely head-scratching when you consider that Koppel was born in 1940 and thus lived through the entire Cold War). The US faces not a single plausible existential threat, no great-power rival, no near-term competitor for global hegemon and no legitimate military adversary that poses any security threat to the United States.

And as my colleague and friend Micah Zenko exhaustively pointed out last year – the world today is safer, freer, healthier and more economically prosperous than any point in human history.

Wars of all varieties are on the decline. Inter-state war is virtually non-existent. There hasn’t been a great power conflict in more than 60 years and there is little reason to believe there will be another one any time soon. In fact, in the first decade of the 21st century there were fewer deaths from year than any previous ten-year period in the last century. 

Of course even if one recognizes that the world is safer it doesn’t mean it will stay that way, or so might argue the cynics. But again here there is more good news – all the key political, economic and social indicators point toward a future of less not more war.

There are today 117 electoral democracies around the world – a sizable increase over what the 70 or so that existed at the end of the Cold War. Moreover, economic interdependence and liberalization is the rule not the exception – and of course, increasing economic interdependence is a net positive because trade and foreign direct investment between countries generally correlates with long-term economic growth and a reduced likelihood of war.

So too does greater prosperity – which also defines our current global era. People are living longer and healthier lives with greater access to primary and secondary education. In fact, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by more than half since the early 1980s. Thirty years ago, half the people living in the developing world survived on less than $1.25 a day; today, that figure is about one-sixth.

And while we know that these are not hard and fast rules, generally speaking, a world of more democracy, greater economic linkages and higher levels of prosperity and living standards is a world that is less prone to violence.

So from a global perspective:  the key democratic, economic and security-related metrics are all moving in one direction – toward greater security and a diminishing likelihood of conflict. All of this makes Koppel’s claims of a dangerous world highly dubious and deeply misleading.

Well rest assured Koppel has some “evidence” to back up his bold assertion:

“A. It’s not over in Afghanistan. B. To the degree that al Qaeda has moved over into Pakistan, that’s a country that has over 100 nuclear weapons. Syria, which is an ongoing problem. The suggestion constantly seems to be that we need to come in on the side of the rebels. There are at least 1000 Al Qaeda members in Syria today fighting on the side of the rebels. If the chemical weapons fall into their hands, big problem.

Iran . . . remember now . . . it might even have been on this program that Bibi Netanyahu suggested that come spring, come early summer if the Iranians still have not pulled back from building a nuclear weapons the Israelis may attack – the Iranians would respond against the United States and they have the capacity to do it with cyber war.”

So let’s unpack this. He’s right that things are not over in Afghanistan, although considering that the US is on a course to drawdown it troops there we can say that things are close to being over for the United States. Still, why would Afghanistan represent a future threat to the United States? The President has decided that US national security will be protected even if the US presence there declines – what makes Koppel think this is wrong?

But he is worried about Pakistan – so much so that he puts al Qaeda in the same sentence as “nuclear weapons.” Still what reason is there is to believe that al Qaeda, which is on the run, has been hammered by US drones and is down to a few key lieutenants would have any chance of gaining possession of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – and then use them against the United States (or any other country for that matter)? Perhaps Koppel would be reassured by the fact that in January 2010, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates stated that he is “very comfortable with the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons” – a view that has been endorsed by successive senior officials.  Also, Koppel appears unaware that al Qaeda has been predominately in Pakistan since 2001 and yet amazingly no nuclear weapons have fallen into their hands.

Next while Koppel is correct that Syria remains an ongoing issue and there is pressure on the US to get involved it seems relevant to mention that Syria has been an issue for nearly 2 years; there has been pressure for the US to get involved and yet it hasn’t happened.  Moreover, while there is an al Qaeda franchise in Syria and the country has chemical weapons there is little reason to view that as a threat to the United States.  Koppel appears to believe that every group that has franchised with al Qaeda represents a danger to America and a defining feature of a less secure world.

Like in Koppel’s Pakistan example he has combined a few chilling words (al Qaeda and chemical weapons) to scare those listening into believing that US is facing a more dangerous period in global affairs. But even the most cursory analysis of his argument would suggest that this is not the case.

Finally, there is Koppel’s Iran example, which is fascinating in its complete disconnection from facts. First of all Iran is not building a nuclear weapon since according the IAEA and the US government, Teheran does not have an active nuclear program. Yes I’m aware that the country is enriching uranium, but the distinction between developing the capabilities for a nuke and actually building one is pretty important – Koppel elides it.  Second, the notion of a US strike on Iran has been dealt a rather serious blow in the wake of Israel’s recent elections (as well as the recent US elections) and few observers of the region believe that the likelihood of a unilateral Israeli strike are high. Moreover, Koppel’s conviction that such an unlikely attack would lead to an Iranian counter-attack against the United States is all well and good – but so what?

Iran is a diplomatically isolated, economically challenged country.  According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran’s “military forces have almost no modern armor, artillery, aircraft or major combat ships, and UN sanctions will likely obstruct the purchase of high-technology weapons for the foreseeable future.”  And their cyber capabilities are modest at best; certainly not at the level where they could threaten the United States in any serious way.  Iran is a bad actor and they can certainly make trouble when they want to – but a harbinger of a more dangerous world? Balderdash.

In of itself Koppel’s statements are fairly meaningless. It’s not as if he is a leading voice on foreign affairs or someone who today has a large media presence. But what is so troubling about these types of episodes is that after Koppel spread his misinformation he was followed by Bob Woodward, Andrea Mitchell, Jim Demint, Ben Jealous . . . all of whom bizarrely agreed with him and in the case of Woodward suggested that he was underplaying threats to the United States.

Woodward said that his next book should be on foreign policy – and be called “Meltdown” even that words comes nowhere close to describing the current global environment. Andrea Mitchell expressed concern that the US would “retreat” from the global stage even though not a single person in a position of political influence with the Obama Administration or Congress is advocating such a position. 

And Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP complained that voters want to know what their leaders will do to make them “safer” even though they are clearly at this point safer from foreign threats than at any point in decades. Rather than pointing out the uncontestable fact that the world today is safer than ever, Koppel’s panelists seemed to try and one-up his dystopian worldview.

The problem with all of this is that many Americans are simply unaware of the true nature of the global environment – and quite often take their cues on foreign policy from elites. And when you have elites like those who were on the Meet the Press this Sunday then Americans are receiving a simply wrong-headed notion about the kind of world they live in and the type of threats that confront the United States. This is more than just ill-informed analysis; it’s actually corrosive, unhelpful and makes Americans more susceptible to the type of fear-mongering that has long defined US foreign policy.  If Americans believe that the world is full of potential threats that could harm them or their families they are likely more inclined to support policies and politicians that seek to ameliorate those threats . . . or see: Iraq War, 2003.

The fact is, the world has never been safer and the United States has never been more secure. This is a fact. Indeed, it's the most salient fact of global affairs in the 21st century and it cannot be repeated enough. 

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