Had it not been for his early and committed opposition to the Iraq War, there is a good chance that Barack Obama would never have been elected president of the United States in 2008. This issue represented probably the most important policy difference between Obama and his principal rivals, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, and his stance appealed to a country that had grown increasingly disgusted with the war. It allowed Obama to argue that, contrary to assertions that he was too young or too inexperienced to be president, he in fact possessed better judgment than his adversaries when it came to foreign policy and national security.
Throughout the campaign, however, Obama advanced a broad critique of U.S. foreign policy that went far beyond Iraq. According to Obama, the war was merely a symptom of a deeper error in the way that Americans thought about the world. As he put it in a debate in Los Angeles in January 2008, “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” He also stated during a speech at DePaul University a few months earlier that “this election is about ending the Iraq War, but even more it’s about moving beyond it.”
So what was the larger mentality that Obama was criticizing? Part of the answer was something that his foreign-policy advisers at the time called “the politics of fear.” Journalist Spencer Ackerman, who interviewed a number of them while on the campaign trail for the American Prospect, noted in March 2008 that this phrase was one that “most advisers used unprompted in our conversations.” In their telling, the essence of the problem was that U.S. decision makers on national-security issues had become governed by fear. This involved both an excessive fear of foreign threats to the United States and a personal fear of political loss if one were perceived as being insufficiently vigilant in protecting Americans from those threats. As one of Obama’s advisers said to Ackerman, “For a long time we’ve not seen much creative thinking from Dems on national security, because, out of fear, we want to be a little different from the Republicans but not too different, out of fear of being labeled weak or indecisive.”
The decision to launch the Iraq War was at the core of Obama’s critique of George W. Bush, but it was hardly the only element of his bill of grievances. Others included the use of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, the embrace of torture (euphemistically dubbed “enhanced interrogation techniques”) and the conducting of warrantless wiretaps against U.S. citizens. Obama contended that, in its zeal to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks, the Bush administration had embraced the politics of fear, and in doing so, had taken measures that had contravened American values without making the country meaningfully safer.
It’s important to be precise about what the term “the politics of fear” means in this context. It isn’t simply synonymous with hawkishness. Even in his now-famous 2002 speech opposing the Iraq War, Obama strove to make it clear that he wasn’t a reflexive pacifist, declaring, “I don’t oppose all wars. . . . What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.” During the campaign, he pledged that if elected he would send more troops to Afghanistan, charging that the Bush administration had neglected the war there as a result of its misguided focus on Iraq. And he promised that if Washington had intelligence about the location of high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan that the Pakistani leadership was unwilling or unable to take action against, he would order military strikes against them—a position that attracted criticism from both his Democratic and Republican competitors.
Rather, what defines the politics of fear is the absence of any sort of perspective for prioritizing or making sense of threats. It’s the mentality that any potential threat to the United States is a “critical” or “extraordinary” one, and that almost any measures are therefore justified in confronting it. The tendency to overhype foreign threats is rampant among U.S. leaders, as Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen perceptively observed in Foreign Affairs in 2012. While senior foreign-policy officials regularly state that we live in a world that is more dangerous than ever, Zenko and Cohen wrote, this attitude “is simply wrong.” It is out of step with long-term trends like the overall decline of war and violence and the global expansion of wealth and prosperity. The reality, in Zenko and Cohen’s words, is that “the world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe place. . . . The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon.”
Six years and two election victories later, has Obama delivered on his promise to move beyond fear? Not even close. To borrow a phrase from Joe Biden, Osama bin Laden is dead, but the politics of fear are still very much alive.
This has become increasingly clear in two stages. First, in his initial years as president, Obama surprised many observers by continuing most of the Bush administration’s policies regarding counterterrorism and national security. The list is long and familiar. To name just a few: The practice of indefinite detention persists. The prison at Guantánamo Bay remains open. America’s targeted-killing campaign expanded dramatically in Pakistan and Yemen during Obama’s first term. The National Security Agency’s mass-surveillance programs have continued to operate. Looking back at these and other decisions on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Ackerman fairly assessed that “since coming to power, Obama has accommodated himself to the politics of fear far more than he’s confronted it.”
Second, over the past four months, with the advances of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), an atmosphere of fear and panic has gripped the public discourse on national-security issues. Declarations that the group represents an unprecedented danger to America have become common among elected officials. Senator Dianne Feinstein said last month, “The threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated.” And Senator Lindsey Graham warned that the Islamic State would “open the gates of hell to spill out on the world,” concluding theatrically that “this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.”
With the November midterms approaching, it’s no surprise that this has become an election issue in several races. As Zack Beauchamp noted at Vox, this has usually taken the form of Republicans accusing Democrats of being weak on terrorism, and Democrats responding defensively by touting their own hawkish credentials. That is precisely the dynamic that Obama’s advisers said that they hoped to overcome during the 2008 race.
The clearest example is in Colorado’s Senate race, where Democratic incumbent Mark Udall is being challenged by Republican Cory Gardner. Udall said in a debate on September 6 that the Islamic State “does not present an imminent threat to this nation.” In response, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) ran an ad titled “Chaos.” After playing the clip of Udall speaking those words along with a montage of scary-looking images over ominous-sounding music, the NRSC’s narrator asked, “Really? Can we take that chance?”
Can we? By way of an answer, consider the larger context of Udall’s comment: “I said last week that ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation, and it doesn’t. I sit on the Armed Services Committee and Intelligence Committee. If we don’t respond to the threat it represents, they will be a threat to this country.” That is more or less the current judgment of the intelligence community, as reflected in the recent public statements of its senior officials. There was simply nothing inaccurate about what Udall said.
Nevertheless, after being attacked for his supposed weakness, Udall quickly pivoted and began to adopt a much more aggressive tone. One week after the NRSC’s ad ran, Udall released his own ad about the Islamic State. It also began with images of jihadist soldiers on the march, calling the organization “a barbaric terrorist threat.” The ad then played up Udall’s credentials to counter that threat, describing the senator as “a respected leader on national security” and boasting that he was “determined to defeat ISIS, with full support for American air strikes in Syria and Iraq.”
This, in a nutshell, is the politics of fear at work.
In 2008, Obama’s advisers conceived of the politics of fear as a sort of drastic overreaction to the events of 9/11. But the story really has more to do with larger, structural factors: the incentives that influence how key decision makers act and how threats are processed through the American political system. Those incentives help explain why the politics of fear are likely to be with us well into the foreseeable future, no matter what else happens anywhere else in the world.
For one thing, overstating threats serves the political interests of both major parties. As Zenko and Cohen put it in 2012:
For Republicans, who have long benefited from attacking Democrats for their alleged weakness in the face of foreign threats, there is little incentive to tone down the rhetoric; the notion of a dangerous world plays to perhaps their greatest political advantage. For Democrats, who are fearful of being cast as feckless, acting and sounding tough is a shield against GOP attacks and an insurance policy in case a challenge to the United States materializes into a genuine threat.
It also serves the interests of the bureaucracy. Michael J. Glennon’s outstanding new book, National Security and Double Government, discusses this issue in detail. Seeking to explain the continuity between the Bush administration and the Obama administration on national-security issues, Glennon concludes that, in effect, the United States has two parallel governments at work. The first consists of the formal institutions that we know and recognize—the presidency, Congress, and the courts. The second is made up of the network of officials that run the country’s military, intelligence, and diplomatic agencies. While the public believes that power rests in the former, Glennon writes, it is the latter that effectively determines the course of U.S. national-security policy.
The individuals who make up this network, according to Glennon, share a broadly similar disposition toward the outside world. They are likely to “define security in military and intelligence terms rather than political and diplomatic ones.” They will always be blamed if they are seen as doing too little to protect Americans, but never if the threats they predict fail to materialize or if spending on security crowds out spending on other important national priorities. Therefore, as Glennon quotes Jeffrey Rosen as saying, they have “an incentive to pass along vague and unconfirmed threats of future violence, in order to protect themselves from criticism.” And, like the managers of any organization, they have every incentive to ask for ever-larger budgets for U.S. military and intelligence agencies.
Finally, and paradoxically, it’s in part because America’s overall power position is so favorable that it is easy to hype the dangers that remain. The United States today is deeply fortunate that it does not have a true peer competitor or share a border with a hostile nation. Most great powers throughout history have faced these kinds of challenges. However, in the absence of a threat of this type, Americans seem to have responded by displaying higher levels of fear regarding the threats that do still exist. Thus, for example, polling data showed that in 2012, the U.S. public considered the threat presented by Iran to be roughly on par with that of the Soviet Union during the 1980s. It’s safe to say that if the Soviet Union still actually existed—with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the United States and engaged around the globe in a series of proxy wars against it—those numbers probably would have looked pretty different.
All of these factors help to explain how, over the past few months, assertions that the Islamic State represents “an existential threat to America” (from Representative Mike Pompeo) or “an imminent threat to every interest we have” (from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel) have become routine. These statements are unambiguously false and damaging, and they deserve to be called out and criticized as such. But they’re also the kind of statements that a culture suffused in the politics of fear is bound to produce.
Robert Golan-Vilella is associate managing editor of The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter at @RGolanVilella.