James Fallows on Threat Inflation


James Fallows has some things to say about the Iraq War as we near the tenth anniversay of the invasion. Go read. This was the most resonant bit for me:

As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed. That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world really came within moments of nuclear destruction.

Otherwise: the “missile gap.” The Gulf of Tonkin. The overall scale of the Soviet menace. Iraq. In each case, the public soberly received official warnings about the imminent threat. In cold retrospect, those warnings were wrong — or contrived, or overblown, or misperceived. Official claims about the evils of these systems were many times justified. Claims about imminent threats were most of the times hyped.

We’re all going to use the anniversary as a reason to cast blame and demand accountability from everyone who was wrong ten years ago. That’s fine. But it’s more important, I think, to try to learn some actual lessons, and this is the key one. The lesson isn’t that threats are never real. The lesson is that, nine times out of ten, the official account of the threat is overblown by at least half.

So keep that in mind for the next war. If you listen to the war supporters, and their case still sounds reasonable even after you discount everything they say by 50 percent or more, then maybe you should support military action. But that ought to be your standard. Your default assumption should be that they’re overstating the threat by at least that much.

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