Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday June 7, 2015
“These days, prominent experts and politicians seem determined to keep the American people in a perpetual state of trembling fear. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks, ‘the question is not whether the world will continue to unravel but how fast and how far.’ The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, told Congress last year that ‘(the world is) more dangerous than it has ever been.’ Someone really ought to tell the general about the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, and a little known episode known as World War II.)….And then there’s CNN and Fox News which seem to think that most news stories should be a variation on Fear Factor.””
I would normally not begin my column with a long quotation from someone most people wouldn’t know. But as my last column dealt generally with this issue of fear-mongering, it was satisfying to see this past week that some other commentators picked up the subject. Yet none of them have the hefty academic credentials, broad historical perspective and cutting ironic style of Stephen M. Walt, professor of International Relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
(Full Disclosure: After my retirement from ABC News, I was a Fellow at the Shorenstein Centre of the Kennedy School. Professor Walt was not at Harvard at that time and I do not know him personally - although I am certainly familiar with his work. Some of it, as this latest essay, has been published by Foreign Policy Magazine, of which he is an editorial board member. Professor Walt had twice as much space for his commentary as I have for mine, so this is a summary, with some exact quotes, of what I believe is his very powerful message – a message which far too few Americans are receiving.)
Early in his essay, Professor Walt says, “ Here in the United States, it is hard to identify any looming or imminent external threats…..the United States still has the world’s largest and most diverse economy, the world’s most powerful conventional forces and a robust nuclear deterrent…it is isolated from most foreign dangers by two enormous oceans.”
He then points out that there are of course, potential threats lurking outside the borders. Eight other countries have nuclear weapons and they are not all friendly to America. China is a growing power with long term ambitions.
The extremist movements convulsing the Middle East and Africa are troubling on several levels. And cybersecurity is a looming threat. Such problems he believes deserve attention, “and sometimes vigorous and sustained action.”
But he does not believe Americans should be so obsessed with such threats, and to keep them in perspective. ”When did the country that conquered North America, won World Wars I and II, and stared down Joseph Stalin and his successors, become so easily scared by spooks, tin-pot dictators and marginal radical movements like Islamic State, whose total fighting force is smaller than two U.S. Army divisions and whose territory is mostly worthless desert? “
This is Professor Walt’s answer to his own question. ”The main reason so many people stay afraid is that fear is good for the people that purvey it and so they work hard to instill fear in the rest of us. Fear is what keeps the United States spending more money on defense than the next dozen states combined. Fear is what gets politicians elected, fear is what justifies preventive wars, excessive government secrecy, covert surveillance and targeted killings. And fear is what keeps people watching CNN and Fox News and running out to buy the New York Times or the Washington Post. As both democratic and authoritarian leaders have long known, you can get a lot of people to do a lot of foolish things if they are sufficiently scared.”
A few words of my own, on the subject of the news media’s role in fear mongering. As a journalist, most of my life covering foreign news, I confess that stressing the consequences or the threat of a given political situation was a way of getting people’s attention. But those were mere whispers when compared to the cacophony and ubiquity of today’s multiplatform 24/7 news sources, which leave one with the impression that the world is verging on disaster at any time and in virtually every place. It is by no means just cable news. This past week I have watched most of the commercial networks’ evening news broadcasts and more than the first half of each was unrelenting in its dire warnings about real or implicit threats around the globe. This cannot but take a toll on the American psyche.
Professor Walt makes the credible claim that in the past two decades or so, external enemies have done far less damage to America, than its own policies. Take the case of Al Qaeda. “In terms of actual harm inflicted, America’s most lethal opponent in recent years was the original Al Qaeda……the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks killed 2,977 people and caused an estimated $178 billion in property damage and other economic losses. Those losses are hardly trivial- even for a $16 trillion economy – but they pale in comparison to the damage that we’ve done to ourselves. “
Walt calculates that the invasion of Iraq cost at least $3 trillion; that more than 40,000 American personnel were killed or wounded and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed. What was ultimately achieved was a fractured Iraq, now greatly influenced by Iran and the emergence of the Islamic State.
What the American people should really worry about, Professor Walt concludes, “is our inability or unwillingness to learn from past mistakes, the ability of special interests to warp key elements of U.S. foreign policy, (and) the bi-partisan tendency to recycle failed policies and the people who devised them.”
As America begins the ever longer and labored process of choosing a new president, that is a dire warning very much worth heeding.
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