What Stephen Walt Believes You Should Fear

Stephen Walt has a new variant of his same ol’ story about how those fearmongering fearmongerers are mongering fear:

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 episode known as World War II.) Not to be outdone, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes the United States “has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.” And then there’s CNN and Fox News, which seem to think that most news stories should be a variation on Fear Factor.

I agree with Walt. There are fearmongerers waiting around every corner, stopping at nothing to make you feel fear! Maybe this pantheon of fearmongerers, however, includes Stephen Walt himself. Why? Walt, despite his dismissal of terrorism fears, also has a penchant for his own kind of terrorism fearmongering:

Stephen Walt, a foreign-policy expert at Harvard University, is similarly skeptical of the success of drone strikes and targeted killings. He counsels that definitive conclusions are difficult, especially when the number of casualties resulting from targeted killings is so highly contested. “[O]ne might argue that the drone campaign is working, right up to the moment when some rogue Pakistani general gets really angry and gives a bomb to some terrorist group, which then uses it against Baltimore,” he says. “At which point the whole drone campaign looks really, really stupid.”

This type of reasoning is what information security practitioners dub FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). Fear, in the sense of casting an catastrophic outcome as within the realm of possibility, uncertainty over whether or not it will occur, and doubt over one’s security and safety. Walt’s conclusion is, of course, irrefutable. It indeed would be a bad thing if a “rogue Pakistani general” gave some nasty weapon to an terrorist. But it would also be a bad thing if Saddam Hussein supported al-Qaeda, wouldn’t it? That kind of logic and “what if” conjecture was used to justify the very Iraq invasion Walt has spent numerous columns inveighing against.


Walt believes that the US ought to chillax; we’re really safe in ways we have never been before.

Here in the United States, in fact, it’s hard to identify any looming or imminent external threats, and certainly none as dire as the dangers that other societies face or as serious as the challenges the United States has overcome in the past. As I’ve noted before, 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 has no powerful enemies nearby, close allies in every corner of the world, and it is insulated from most foreign dangers by two enormous oceans. Despite the hype about the shrinking of geopolitical space and the emergence of a tightly connected “global village,” distance and the “stopping power of water” still provide considerable security, if not quite 100 percent protection.

But wouldn’t the rogue Pakistani general qualify as an “looming or imminent external threat?” And one, indeed, that the “considerable security” of the so-called “stopping power of water” cannot prevent? Technically, both the fears of the military leaders Walt critiques and Walt’s Baltimore-Go-Boom scenario qualify as potentially fearmongering rhetoric. But Walt is placed in a trap here.

His Pakistani general scenario is Hollywood-like, the very kind of dubious conjecture that would likely be accompanied in a bad Bush-era article with a “ticking time bomb scenario” that we have to torture to extract vital information out of. When it is analytically convenient for Walt, we see criticism of threat inflation and fearmongering. But when it is not, Walt resorts to seemingly contradictory fearmongering of his own to make a point.

After all, didn’t even Stephen Walt ridicule the logic behind such a catastrophic AfPak terrrorism scenario in a 2009 article?

Does the threat of international terrorism — specifically al Qaeda — justify a costly, long-term engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan? President Obama and his advisors think so, but I’m still not convinced. I certainly understand that we have a terrorism problem; I just don’t believe that it is serious enough to warrant the level and type of effort the administration is proposing. And if the results of the recent NATO summit are any indication, our NATO allies seem skeptical, too.

But Dr. Walt, what about the threat from Pakistani generals giving terrorists The Bomb? Walt makes a concession to this in noting the importance of keeping the Pakistani military and nuclear program under state control, but a few years later (the year is now 2013), Walt tells us that we should’t worry about a nuclear handover and helpfully points us to a piece that argues the following:

The fear that nuclear-armed states would hand weapons to terrorists has been a staple of U.S. threat-mongering ever since 9/11. It was a key part of the justification for invading Iraq in 2003, and it forms part of the constant drumbeat for military action against Iran. But it never made much sense for two reasons. First, a nuclear-armed state has little incentive to give up control over weapons it has labored long and hard to acquire, for what could the state possibly gain from doing so? Second, a state giving nuclear weapons to terrorists could never be sure that those weapons would not be traced back to it and thereby invite devastating retaliation. Lieber and Press examine the historical record and show that it is almost impossible to conduct a major terrorist operation and not be blamed for it.

Note that the article that I derived the first Walt quote from (regarding the Pakistani rogue general and terrorist bomb scenario) was dated 2012. So 2012 Walt raises the rogue threat scenario in the context of dismissing drones and counterterrorism. But 2013 Walt is convinced that 2012 Walt is wrong. I checked Walt’s 2015 piece about things he has changed his mind about, and this seemingly enormous counterterrorism flip-flop is not among them. So what gives?


Walt’s inconsistency has everything to do with his strategic use of fear. His opponents use fear, as Walt rightly notes, in cases when the threat stems from an foreign Other. But Walt uses fear when the object to be feared causally stems from either the influence of Walt’s political opponents or the consequences of an American security policy he disagrees with.

Did you know that the NSA and other intelligence bodies are, in fact, raising the terrorist threat level? Walt has more after the paywall. Walt also blames the Charlie Hebdo massacre on “blowback” from US and French (among others) policies. To Walt, Russia’s revanchism and the dangerous escalation at work in Ukraine are the product of Russian insecurity and American opportunism. And then there’s Walt’s oeuvre about the risks of the US setting counterterrorism and drone norms, and other similar notes. “Fear the terrorists and Russia,” sayeth Walt.

But Walt’s own steps into spreading fear don’t stop at the security realm. There are, as the professor notes, other things we ought to be afraid of. Not just things, but people walking among us in the halls of power. Did you know about the malicious, sub rosa influence of that group of conspirators known as The Israel Lobby? Walt has the scoop, and similarly warns us of a nefarious “liberal-neocon alliance” with a corrosive, controlling influence on US foreign policy. Some of whom probably include the nefarious architects of the Iraq War, still out there on the loose evading the clutches of law enforcement. Fear those dastardly neocons and neoliberals and the Israel Lobby too, whoever they are!

Contrary to Walt’s own writing, we have a lot of things to fear, both foreign and domestic. There’s the apparently escalating threat of terrorism, from a rogue general giving terrorists a means to inflict catastrophic destruction on Baltimore to the apparent uselessness of our own intelligence agencies in combating such threats. And in Ukraine, a nuclear armed revanchist power is flexing its muscles. And at home, a group of sinister individuals exert an iron grip on US foreign and defense policy, motivating us to make choices that make us ultimately more unsafe.

Despite Walt’s arguments that we are safe and ought to chill out, the other Walt’s writing has convinced us that we should be afraid, very afraid.


Walt’s very reliance on catastrophic scenarios for US foreign policy failures, from blowback to even the specter of loose nukes, suggests that (contra Walt) he and his opponents agree on one critical thing. Threats exist, either arising from some nether of amorphous anti-Americanism or the deliberate consequences of failed US policies. This may seem like a vast gulf indeed, however. But upon closer examination, Walt’s position and those of the supposed “fearmongerers” he critiques is not that far apart. Why?

His own position involves some unique analytical burdens, one of which is that one actually cannot suggest an catastrophic deviation from US security and safety as the result of one’s political opponents gaining the upper hand in the policy arena. Surely ultimate safety would be safety from idiots, would it not? Surely the most robust kind of security would be one in which the consequences of a failed US drone campaign would not be a Pakistani general handing terrorists a tool to vaporize Baltimore, would it not?

If we were as safe, secure, and unchallenged as Walt suggests, then we would have the freedom to make mistakes without needing to be afraid. Certainly we would nonetheless have an moral injunction to oppose policies that deliver unnecessary harm, but Walt is a Realist so such arguments are not particularly important. In the grand scheme of things, what is an lost invasion to an superpower, for example? Walt devotes inordinate time and energy villifying the architects of the Iraq War, but does it impact the balance of power?

Put more bluntly, if our precedented security and safety is indeed being obscured by fearmongering fearmongerers, then why are any of the things Walt warns about happening security problems? Indeed, Walt argues that we should be making ourselves resilient at home lest we over-react to terrorism and cause a spiraling cycle of blowback. But if we shouldn’t be afraid of Islamist terrorism in the first place, because of our unprecedented peace and security why ought we concern ourselves with blowback? After all, one ought not be concerned with what a gnat or an fly does. Even if the insect is provoked, the damage it would be able to inflict would be so minimal that one could abuse the insects with impunity and soak up each futile counterblow. Perhaps we ought not to abuse insects ought of concern for the sanctity of life, but there is no a priori security reason in such a situation to refrain from abusing the insect.

Walt cannot have it both ways. His America is one that is perpetually teetering on the brink of disaster, but suggest that the mechanism of disaster causation stems from anything other than the choices of his policy opponents and you are (to Walt) a fearmongerer. When the subject is the utility of the drone program, Walt finds the threat of a nuclear handoff useful as conjecture. When it comes to denouncing counterterrorism fearmongering, it is beyond the realm of possibility. Perhaps Walt, like many prolific writers, simply cannot keep track of all of the columns he has written and doesn’t know that an inconsistency has presented itself. Fair enough. But if there is one consistency to Walt’s work, it is that he does, in fact, think you should be afraid — of a very specific set of people and policies that he happens to oppose!

Perhaps Walt may counter by saying “yes, I do think that America and my political opponents are the biggest threat to your security and safety!” Indeed, Walt himself has said this outright:

After 9/11, the Bush administration’s foolhardy invasion of Iraq cost at least $3 trillion dollars, more than 40,000 U.S. personnel killed or wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. What did we get for it? A broken Iraqi state, enhanced Iranian influence in the region, and the emergence of the Islamic State. The invasion of Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, guaranteeing the NATO mission there would also fail (at a cost of another $1 trillion or so).
Let’s add to these costs the creation of failed states in Libya and Yemen. The United States is not solely responsible for either outcome, but our interventions in both places surely did not help. The panicked U.S. response to 9/11 also produced an excessive “war on terror” that included the use of torture, illegal surveillance, and the emergence of an out-of-control intelligence community that repeatedly broke U.S. law and then lied about it. The costs to our global image are far from trivial, and it remains to be seen if our commitment to civil liberties will emerge unscathed. None of these actions were forced upon us by a powerful, hostile foe; they were choices made by U.S. leaders from both parties.
In short, what ought to worry most Americans is not that we face a powerful, cunning, and hostile set of foreign rivals (though I do have long-term concerns about China’s ambitions in Asia and elsewhere). The real worry should be America’s demonstrated talent for shooting itself in the foot and then pretending that was where it was aiming all along. If you want to something to worry about, you should ponder our inability or unwillingness to learn from past mistakes, the ability of special interests to warp key elements of U.S. foreign policy, the bipartisan tendency to recycle failed policies and the people who devised them, and our habitual surprise when we meddle in places we don’t understand and discover that some of the people we’ve been pushing around don’t like it, want us out, and are willing to do nasty things to achieve that goal. Unless and until these features of U.S. foreign policy are altered, even those of us who are lucky to be living here in the relative security of the United States have something to worry about.

Even we grant this counterargument and concede that the greatest threat to America’s safety lies in policies Stephen Walt opposes being enacted or figures Stephen Walt views as dangerous having policy influence, this does not save us. Because short of making Stephen Walt a dictator, there is no way to completely prevent policies Stephen Walt opposes from being enacted or to blacklist people Stephen Walt views as dangerous so that they have no policy influence. And even if we stop the bad policies that Walt believes have some causal relationship with his threat scenarios, then we obviously cannot prevent someone from re-starting them sometime in the distant future (perhaps after Walt has passed away of old age and thus cannot warn us about his fear regarding bad security policies sold by fearmongering fearmongerers that could kill us all or at the very minimum take out the Baltimore metropolitan region).

Ergo, we still live in a world of mortal danger! And Walt’s own presumption here:

Here in the United States, in fact, it’s hard to identify any looming or imminent external threats, and certainly none as dire as the dangers that other societies face or as serious as the challenges the United States has overcome in the past. As I’ve noted before, 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 has no powerful enemies nearby, close allies in every corner of the world, and it is insulated from most foreign dangers by two enormous oceans. Despite the hype about the shrinking of geopolitical space and the emergence of a tightly connected “global village,” distance and the “stopping power of water” still provide considerable security, if not quite 100 percent protection.

……has just been revealed to be logically problematic. After all, there is the looming threat of everything ranging from a rogue Pakistani general giving nukes to terrorists to the Russians. And yet Walt believes we are “insulated from foreign dangers.” Which evidently do not include Baltimore going up in a nuclear explosion, conflict with Russia, or any of the other maladies he has warned us could happen.

Pre-emptively, I also answer the natural question of whether I am fearmongering about Walt’s supposed fearmongering. It may be plausibly objected that I am setting up a recursive process, which is absolutely correct. To borrow a game theory term, there is K-Fearmongerability at work here.

However I, unlike Walt, am not committed to the position that the US is getting safer/is safe and any perception of a deviation from this course (perceived by Walt’s opponents, course) is fearmongering. Perhaps it is because, like Walt ostensibly does as a structural realist, I believe that the international community is composed of more causally relevant entities than America. I believe in the existence of relevant and significant entities with agency, that can make threatening choices and produce threatening outcomes for reasons other than bad US choices.

Indeed, some of Walt’s own writing suggests this. If, indeed, the drone program is no salve for the moment that a Pakistani general decides to hand over WMD to terrorists and cannot be prevented from doing so by fear of retaliation, then what could stop said general? Surely not Walt’s favored policies or policymakers. Maybe not all threats in the world stem purely from the catastrophic impact of people that disagree with Stephen Walt making national security decisions, and by extension, American national security decisions!


So assuming you agree with me, you might ask what Walt could do to make a more useful contribution to the public dialogue regarding security. In sum, Walt ought to do the following:

(1) Disavow arguments that he has made where he and his opponents both believe the same threat is plausible (albeit explained by different causal mechanisms).

OR

(2) Stop inveighing against the abstract threat of “fearmongers” and recognize that fear mongering (including his own) has become the lingua franca of American public policy.

OR

(3) Argue that fearmongering in and of itself, unless we are completely willing to ban rhetorical use of such arguments, is omnipresent. It matters more if the fears are correct and the messenger is consistent.

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