US portrays foes stronger than they are because it needs an enemy - political analyst

If you listened to some of the politicians in the United States, you would think that the country is encircled by enemies. Grave threats emerge regularly, posing danger to everything the US has ever stood for. Islamic State is portrayed as the immediate peril for Washington – and yet, before it, Al-Qaeda was painted the same. However, the United States remain the safest country in the world – and yet, it’s not too eager to cut back on its gigantic military budget. Are the dangers that Washington sees even real, or is the threat coming from White House cabinets? We pose these questions to a professor of political science: Christopher Fettweis is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Author of “Dangerous Times”, professor of political science Christopher Fettweis, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, professor, you say the West has no big threats to worry about today. If that’s so, why does the U.S. always acts as if it’s in grave danger? I mean, constantly ramping up its defense capacities, talking about threats ranging from IS to Iran, to Russia, etc…

Christopher Fettweis: It’s a great question because there’s a mismatch between a level of threat the U.S. faces in the world compared to any time before and the reaction that it has to it. The U.S. fears a lot more than it should. Maybe, I should say, a lot of people in the U.S. fear more than they should, because although we’ll never going to be completely safe, security is relative – no country is ever totally safe – but compared to other countries and compared to other times, U.S. is a remarkably safe country right now, but we don’t act like it. We tend to act like we’re in tremendous danger in ways that other countries don’t see – nobody else understood why Saddam Hussein was such a big threat, except the U.S., and fearful countries act in ways that unfearful ones don’t – so my belief is that we ought to be a lot less worried about the future and about the present.

SS: But why is U.S. so fearful? Is it really the fear that’s driving the U.S. to feel threatened or it is other things?

CF: Well, there’s a bunch of things that work together: first part, every Great Power tends to fear more than little powers. Going all way back to Rome – the Romans were much more worried about the little barbarian tribes across the next hill than they should have been, because they were very safe. The British, when they had their big empire in XIX century, were worried a lot more than other countries. So, some of it is power. The biggest countries worry more than the little countries do, because they feel like they’re the target. But there are aspects of the American culture which makes us more susceptible to worrying as well. Our media – we have a lot of media figures and politicians who play on American fears. We are very religious country, religious countries tend to be more… they tend to see “evil” – they are more comfortable with the idea of “evil” than other countries are. So, there are a lot of factors going into it. But we have a national level of fear that is unwarranted. We’d be better off recognizing that.

SS: You also said that threatlessness has led to a failure of America’s global strategy. But isn’t a lack of threats a good thing, actually? I mean, shouldn’t this situation make it easier to plan globally?

CF: Yeah, it should, you’re exactly right. Why doesn’t it? Why aren’t we happier? Strategy should be easier in times of low threat – but unfortunately, that’s not how we act. A lot of times we act like it’s harder to make strategy, and that’s because people and countries do better with an enemy. It sounds sort of counter-intuitive, maybe, but people feel more comfortable when they know who the bad guy is, because it makes them feel like a good guy. We all know, “we are the good guy”, and there’s no point in having a “good guy” if there’s no “bad guy”. When you have a time when there’s no obvious bad guy, or when the bad guys are so weak – ISIS and Al-Qaeda are very small bad guys – it creates a certain level of anxiety. In 1990s, after the Cold War, enemy was gone, and we had a tough time putting together a strategy, which doesn’t seem to make sense – but it’s easier to put together strategy in foreign policy when you have somebody who, you know, is trying to work against you. It’s dangerous, but in some ways it’s easier.

SS: You’ve just said it, like, things like ISIS and Al-Qaeda that America actually portrays as the biggest threats to its national security and not only– so do you mean to say the U.S. has sent its’ boys and girls to die in places like Iraq and Afghanistan that pose no real threat to country’s security?

CF: The great tragedy of Iraq is that it was unnecessary. You’re right, we do a lot of things that don’t increase our security, that don’t have any impact on our security at all, and Iraq is the biggest one. There were a lot of people, before the war, before that Iraq war in 2003, saying “What are we doing, this is crazy!” – even if he had weapons of mass destruction, which is the debate in the U.S. is talking about now, even if he had them, it wasn’t worth going to war for he was equally deterrable as any other country. ISIS and Al-Qaeda right now – they can kill people, but they’re small. They cannot overthrow the U.S., they can’t change any Western or Eastern country – they can’t change any country. They’re dangerous little parasites, and they shouldn’t be treated as if they were bigger threat to anybody’s national security.

SS: Here’s another interesting paradox: the U.S. hasn’t fought a war against a foreign enemy on its own soil in over a century – like, a real war; yet, it’s also the country most involved in wars abroad. I wonder, why? Why does the U.S. feel its job is to solve other countries’ problems, maybe because it doesn’t realize what it’s like to have a war on its own soil?

CF: Our Department of Defense doesn’t do a lot of direct defense of the U.S., it does defense abroad. Part of that is a reflection of power. The U.S. fights wars abroad because it can, because it has the ability to do so, but part of that is, too, the U.S. recognizes and defines its interests so broadly that things that happen everywhere tend to show up on our radar screen. There’s also a sense of responsibility that the U.S. feels. One of my students said: “You know, with great power comes great responsibility” and I thought that was pretty wise, I thought, maybe it was Churchill or Voltaire – turns out it was in Spiderman. Spiderman’s uncle told him that. But it’s the way U.S. policymakers feel. When something goes wrong, we have the power to stop it. We have the power, for instance, to stop the carnage in Syria, and we choose not to do it – now, getting involved in Syria, I think that would be a big mistake – but, we have the power to stop almost any big-scale massacre that goes on in the world. When we choose not to do so, we are also making a choice that other countries don’t have to make. There’s great responsibility that comes with the kind of power the U.S. has.

SS: Another choice that the U.S. constantly has to make, is to figure out who their enemy is – because when you don’t know who the enemy is like… Rumsfeld said, like: “when you don’t know that, you don’t know” - then you can pretty much just make up an enemy out of anyone or anything you wish, right?

CF: Well, yeah, usually there has to be something behind it. One of the great problems with international politics is that power creates anxiety. Right now, between Russia and the U.S. there’s a classic case of misperception on both sides, both sides are strong and can’t really ever be sure what the other side is thinking. So, there’s a debate in the U.S., obviously, about how dangerous Vladimir Putin’s regime is or how dangerous the rise of China should be. So, there’s always potential out there, because every country has some level of power, there’s always potential enemies, because you never ever really know what the other side is thinking. In Moscow, they can’t really be sure what Washington is thinking and it creates a lot of opportunity of misperception on both sides. It’s not irrational at all to think Al-Qaeda was an enemy – I mean, they announced that themselves pretty broadly to most people in the U.S. on September 11, so it’s not as if enemies are being made out of a whole cloth, or being created by some Cabal or some military-industrial complex. It’s a natural psychological phenomena. People need to identify who the bad guy is, because it makes them feel like the good guy and it gives life purpose, gives life meaning, if you can struggle against and try to defeat that enemy. Every high school in the U.S. has its rival. Every college has a college football team that they don’t like. Everybody needs rivals to give life meaning, and that’s a thing that we’re seeing internationally.

SS: But, then, there are also interventions that many people accept as wrong or useless – you yourself said Iraq was a mistake – so what about ending interventions, foreign deployments? Wouldn’t that mean curbing major military spending, right? And, I imagine that would sit well with America’s military elite and defense establishment?

CF: Ending wars doesn’t necessarily mean cutting back military spending. The U.S. has cut back, in the last few years, its military spending, but it had little to do with ending the wars, it had more to do with this parliamentary procedure that was put into place. I thought people abroad overestimate the degree to which the military-industrial complex or military elites drive our policy. I think we have strategists to drive our policy and do stupid things, but I don’t necessarily think it’s done because there are people making money. One of the iron rules in the international politics – it’s always true – that the other side, whoever the other side is, is always acting in its interests, it’s always just acting in pure power policy, what we would say “the other side is a realist”. We think Vladimir Putin is just looking out for his power, and there are no other considerations. I’m sure the people in Russia think the U.S. is just trying to expand its power when expanding NATO. Whoever we are, we now we’re complicated and we have a lot of different motivations for what we do, but we think the other side is just pure cynical power maximizers. I’m sure, people think that about the U.S. too, and it’s one of the roots of misperception, because we know, whoever we are, we know we’re not like that. The other side – we can’t be sure about them.

SS: It’s funny, you’ve just said in your answer that the U.S. actually cut back on its military spending – that said, 600 billion dollars of defense budget is in place, when the next biggest spender spends 130 billion – I’m talking about China. Why does the U.S. need 600 billion dollars on defense?

CF: It’s a great question, and I don’t think we do. There’s a perception that there’s a direct relationship between security and spending, that the more you spend, the safer you’ll be, and the U.S. is a paranoid country and anybody who says, any politician who says we could be just as safe with half that spending is going to be opening themselves to criticism that “you’re not taking our security seriously enough”. It’s a misperception that there’s a direct relationship between security and spending, but people think theirs is. We should have cut way back, we’d be perfectly safe cutting way back – and we did cut back from Cold War levels, but the U.S. still spends way more that it needs, much more than it needs, and when you spend a lot, you can do a lot. In my view, if we were to cut back our spending, we would have to think twice about doing some of the more aggressive international projects that we’ve gotten into; although, I think President Obama feels the same way. I’m quite confident that he is not eager to get involved in current crisis de jure. His successors – I mean, I cannot be too sure about them, however.

SS: A recent study, published in Journal of Conflict Resolution says that a country is more likely to intervene in another nation’s civil war if that country has oil reserves – I mean, that’s, like, common knowledge. What do you think? If the U.S. was less dependent on oil imports, could we expect it to intervene less or that has nothing to do with it?

CF: That’s a great question and we’re going to see to some degree.. I think the U.S. starts producing more of this tar sand oil and we have this big fracking revolution… We’re producing more of our energy domestically, but I think we’re probably still going to be as engaged internationally. It is certainly true that countries with a lot of resources are more important than countries without them. Without oil everybody could happily ignore the Middle East – but, unfortunately, it’s an important part of the world because of that. It’s not so much how much any country imports, it’s the overall global price. We don’t import a whole lot of oil from Saudi Arabia, put if something happens to Saudi Oil, the global price of oil would immediately shoot up. So it’s not so much the amount of oil that the U.S. imports as it’s the global market for oil, global supply and demand – because the price is a vulnerability and not so much the amount we’re importing.

SS: But also, on the other hand, the U.S. is staying out of Yemen and it’s not willing to commit ground troops to Iraq or get involved in Syria at this – does this mean Washington is growing weary of foreign interventions?

CF: I certainly hope so, however, I think it’s more a reflection of this President. This President is following a grand strategy of what we would call “strategic restraint” of not becoming aggressively involved in every corner of the world in ways that make – we have this neoconservative element in the U.S. – it makes them apoplectic, it makes them crazy, because he’s not willing to commit American forces in any large numbers around the world. We’re doing some things – this might scare people but this is what the restraint of the U.S. looks like, because we’re still quite active with drones and special forces around the world, but this is probably as restrained as this country is going to get for the foreseeable future, because the people who’re going to follow President Obama are not going to be as restrained, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or any other Republicans, virtually, sans Rand Paul. The rest of them are going to be much more active or much more willing to intervene because they believe power of the U.S. generally is for the best. There’s a belief that the U.S. power brings about better outcomes – and, apparently, no amount of evidence from Iraq has been able to dissuade people of that notion.

SS: Say the American establishment comes out of denial, as you call it, and admits there are no real threats to the U.S. security today. What kind of strategy would that mean? What should be America’s foreign policy priority then?

CF: That’s a great question and I think, broadly speaking, President Obama has it right, in the sense that we have fairly restrained foreign policy. We see things that are going on and affect the margins, but U.S. would be better of acknowledging that we are, as one of my former colleagues used to say: “we’re a superpower and not a superhero”. There are limits to what can be accomplished. There are certainly limits to what could be accomplished in the Middle East. You have a parade of people in this country now trying to say: “We have to get more involved with ISIS, we have to bring order to Western Iraq and Eastern Syria” – that’s crazy talk. We have to understand that there are certain places in the world and certain issues that we can’t really affect directly. We can’t affect, we can’t control. So, much more restrained U.S. would be eager to engage the world economically and we would be eager to help out with humanitarian crisis – the next time there’s a genocide in the world, we would share the burden, and everybody, Russia, U.S., Europeans help to stop it. But we wouldn’t be eager to get engaged militarily around the world because most of the problems in the world are not directly related to the U.S. and the U.S. security, and there are actually very few problems in the world, compared to historical sweep. The great unexplored, unexplained trend in security is the overall decline of warfare in the last couple of decades – it doesn’t seems that way if you watch the news, but this is a lot more peaceful world than ever before – and we ought to be able to enjoy the fruits of that, going forward.

SS: Let’s talk about War on Terror. I mean, the word combination, “War on Terror” sounds more like a concept rather than an actual war – but this ambiguity means this war can be dragged on indefinitely and it could be a war that you’re always winning but never actually win; is this a ploy by the Hawks to keep America involved in the world?

CF: I don’t think so. First of all, I think it’s stupid. I think the whole… calling it “the War on Terror” is counter-productive: it sets up Al-Qaeda and ISIS as some kind of superhero enemy. I think it’s a mistake, but I don’t think it’s done as a ploy to try to keep us involved in the rest of the world. I know a lot of people who deeply believe that we’re in a generations-long struggle with radical Islam. There are true believes, and they say that we have to increase our spending and our activity to try and defeat Al-Qaeda and ISIS world view. I profoundly disagree with that, but I don’t doubt their motives – I have never talked to anybody who, even over beers, would say: “Hey, what we really need to do is keep ISIS in the headlines so we can keep spending and keep engaged”. I think most of us people prefer not to be engaged, but they think we need to. I don’t think we need to. I think ISIS can be fairly easily contained – fall of Ramadi notwithstanding – I think they are not that big of a threat in the overall scheme of things. But I don’t doubt the motivations of the people who are much more hawkish than I am.

SS: Sure, but I mean, good motives don’t necessarily equal up to good outcome – at the start of the War on Terror, there were hundreds of Al-Qaeda members. Now, there are tens of thousands of islamist extremists, and they have a de-facto caliphate. Has the war of what was a vague sort of uncertain threat, created a real, concrete threat now?

CF: Yeah… I wouldn’t exaggerate how much the threat is now, even, but I don’t think it has made it better. I think you’re exactly right when you say that good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good outcomes, but history judges outcomes. History doesn’t judge intentions. The Bush administration and its supporters are not going to be able to say: “well, we meant well in Iraq...” – No. Things went terribly, it was a stupid idea and it was horribly carried out. So, it doesn’t matter what the intentions were – history does not judge intentions, history judges outcomes, and it’s going to be difficult for anybody to judge the war in Iraq and its outcome in any kind of positive way. There has been no positive… nothing positive came out of it. We essentially created ISIS by attacking Iraq. There were no Islamic fundamentalist movements in Iraq before this. So, it’s impossible to imagine how anybody could say that there was anything good in invading Iraq – it was a disaster. It’s important to recognize that, because once you recognize it – maybe, you won’t do it again. If you don’t learn lessons from history, you’re going to keep doing the same stupid things over and over again, so I hope that we can learn.

SS: What about NATO, which is pretty much existing because of America and American money. NATO is building up its presence in Europe. Is that adding to security and stability or is it doing the opposite, what do you think?

CF: I don’t know how much they’re building their presence. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, there’s certain number of NATO troops in Estonia now… but the number of NATO troops is way down from where it was 25 years ago. I don’t think anyone serious in Russia thinks its an authentic threat, but I totally agree with you – you haven’t said this, but in my view, expanding NATO was another stupid thing that this country did. The Clinton administration felt that we could expand NATO and bring stability to Eastern-Central Europe, and this is another case of misperception in international politics, because very few people in Moscow saw it that way. People in Moscow, because of the “iron rule”, because other countries are always realists, other countries are always power politics – people assumed that the U.S. was expanding its power and trying to solidify the gains of the Cold War. I know a lot of people in this country, however, who were staunch supporters of NATO expansion and none of them talked like that. They wanted to bring stability, democracy and open markets to Central and Eastern Europe. That was a stupid thing to do, I think our strategic relationship with Moscow is much more important than our strategic relationship with Tirana or Prague – but, nonetheless, we did it, and now we have to deal with the consequences. I think that poisoned our relationship with Russia in ways it was totally unnecessary, an, in tennis they speak of “unforced errors” – expanding NATO was an unforced error that we’re still dealing with.

SS: And is the NSA’s bulk data collecting and uncontrolled spying - all part of the same sort of “creating an artificial threat” problem? How do you get that under control?

CF: I don’t think anybody is trying to create an artificial threat. I think there’s a genuine belief that there’s a threat.

SS: What I mean is a threat that’s not actually a real threat – what we have been talking about.

CF: Right. My personal view on this is that it is a very overblown issue. People on the left think that… the Patriot Act now is a hot issue – it’s coming up for renewal. People on the left talk about it as a beginning of an erosion of our fundamental freedoms, people on the right talk about it as a necessary program to stop terrorist attacks in the U.S. – I think they are both exaggerating. I think it’s a relatively minor program, I don’t think there’s enough people in the government to listen to everybody’s phone calls, I don’t think anybody cares. But, on the other hand, I don’t think it stopped many terrorist attacks at all. In fact, people in the U.S. can merely put their finger or identify any terrorist attacks that have been stopped. We overestimate grossly the threat of terrorism, but on the other hand, I think we do also overestimate the threat to our liberties that the counter-terrorism procedures, which we put into place, pose.

SS: Professor, thank you so much for this wonderful interview. We were talking to professor Christopher Fettweis, author of “Pathologies of Power”. We were talking about what is threatening the U.S. today and what should America’s foreign policy priorities be. That’s for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.