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America Has Never Been Safer -- So Why Are Politicians and the Media Trying to Terrify Us?

Republicans tend to engage in blatant alarmism about foreign threats and Democrats respond in kind for fear of being portrayed as weak.

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I don't want to sound like a conspiracy monger, but every bureaucratic institution wants to protect its budget and the military is no different. And if you think of all the organizations outside of the military, the think tanks, the advocacy groups, the defense contractors, all of them benefit from this sort of fear-mongering. So everyone can sort of eat from the trough on this one. But the reality is that in fact most of it is based on mis-held assumptions about the world we live in.

JH: I want to talk to you about a few specific countries we are told we should have abject terror toward, but before I do I just want to offer a fourth thing: there’s quite a bit of psychological literature about the way we perceive of threats in general, not just security threats. Psychologists have long noted that we tend to inflate threats that are out of our control, so we don’t think twice before getting behind the wheel of a car, but we are terrified of air travel even though statistically air travel is extremely safe. And there is also a tendency to hype novel or newsworthy threats, so the shark attack which is basically – well you’re not going to get attacked by a shark. Those things become prominent fears, because the media gets hold of them and they have what is known as an amplifying effect. So I think these things that are true of all threat perception are also true here.

But let’s talk about a couple of countries. Shouldn’t I be terrified of the Chinese? They’re wily -- aren’t they wily?

MC: [laughs] Well they might be wily, I can’t speak to that issue, but they certainly are not a threat. They are an economic rival, there’s no question about that. From a security standpoint however, they’re barely even a rival in the Far East and in fact they lack any real power projection outside the region.

Even inside the region their power projection capabilities are pretty weak. Most of the countries in the region fear Chinese hegemony and have basically bandwagoned with the U.S. to prevent that from happening.

Now the reality about the Chinese situation with the U.S. is that in fact we both sort of benefit from both of us doing well. I think the Chinese realize that a strong U.S. economy is good for China and a strong Chinese economy is generally good for the U.S. So I see more of what is happening in China as an opportunity for the U.S. economy than I see it as a real security threat.

And I will say this by the way, for what it’s worth: this is one where even the fear-mongering has died down on it.

JH: Now Iran. Iran is basically a third-world country, right?

MC: Militarily, certainly, it is not an advanced country. Its military is very antiquated. Again, they do not have great power projection capabilities. Their economy has been badly hamstrung by economic sanctions, politically they are very isolated, but if you listen to a GOP debate you would think that they are the second coming of Adolf Hitler. They’re presented as the big bad bogeymen.

JH: Yeah, It’s amazing. And I think part of it is that here the culture wars are bleeding into foreign policy on the Right. You know the argument about Iran -- one of many arguments, of course -- is that the nuclear threat would be so great because they’re suicidal, basically, so the traditional deterrence --the mutually assured destruction that kind of ushered the United Sates and the Soviet Union through the Cold War – would not work with them.

 
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