The View From Olympus: The Costs of Threat Inflation

In the 1980s I used to give the slide-show briefing of the Congressional Military Reform Caucus to each class at the Air Force’s Squadron Officers’ School. After one of the briefs, an Air Force captain, an intelligence officer, came up to me and asked, “Does military reform mean I can stop inflating the threat?”

Threat inflation has been one of Washington’s most successful growth industries for a long time.  The purpose of inflating the threat is to inflate the military budget.  The obvious cost is wasting the taxpayers’ money on capabilities we do not need.  But that is not the only cost. As the current tensions with Iran illustrate, threat inflation can lead to counter-productive military planning and, sometimes, to war.

For weeks, the Defense Department has been warning that Iran is planning to use allied Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria to attack U.S. forces in those countries.  It has cited intelligence intercepts of communications between Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the militias as evidence.  I’m sure the intercepts are real.  But the interpretation suggests classic threat inflation.

If the U.S. attacks Iran, the obvious Iranian response will be to seize as many U.S. troops in the region as it can to serve as hostages. The Iranians have stated this response openly, saying, “Last time (in 1979), we had hundreds of American hostages.  This time, we’ll have thousands.”  It is a promising response for the obvious reason that we have no ready countermove. In 1979, we were largely left helpless, especially after we botched a rescue attempt.  One would hope President Trump would ask the Pentagon, “Okay, if they do that, what’s our next move?”  I doubt he will get a reassuring answer.

So what are the communications we have intercepted about?  Preparing that response. We have interpreted them as preparing an attack instead. Why? Because DOD always inflates the threat.

We have also accused Iran of launching small attacks against four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, attacks that damaged the ships but did not sink them. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a carefully weasel-worded statement said, “It seems like it’s quite possible that Iran was behind them.” That is true. It’s also quite possible other countries in the region that want a war between the U.S. and Iran, including Israel, were behind them.  Pointing only to Iran inflates the threat.

Threat inflation in a crisis can easily transmute itself into an escalatory ladder. That may be happening here.  Iran signaled de-escalation by removing some “missiles” (probably just rockets) from some small fast boats used by the Revolutionary Guard. The Pentagon did not reciprocate by dialing back our actions. On the contrary, it asked President Trump to send 20,000 more U.S. troops to the region. Wisely, the president chopped that number back to 900.

Here we see how threat inflation can lead to actions that are militarily just plain dumb.  Iran threatens to take U.S. troops in the region hostage. How do we counter that? By sending more U.S. troops to the region, giving Iran more chances to take hostages. Who in the Pentagon is coming up with this, General Braxton Bragg or General Ben Butler?

Most of the Washington threat inflation industry is focused on inflating the Russian and Chinese “threats”–puffing the dragon is especially fashionable these days–which in turn feeds the bad strategy of turning two countries that should be allies into opponents. That is a failure on the grand strategic level, which is a high price indeed for threat inflation. But threat inflation is so deeply built into our whole system that it warps everything we do. Does military reform mean we can stop inflating the threat? Yes. But until the money runs out, the chance of reform is small.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.