How the ‘threat industrial complex’ distracted America from its problems at home

How the ‘threat industrial complex’ distracted America from its problems at home

By Luke Vargas   
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"If we thought about the opiate epidemic being a crisis, the way we thought about terrorism being a crisis 18 years ago, we might be able to do something about it."

Read the headlines and you’d think the world is in chaos. American leaders have spent decades warning that the world beyond our borders is rife with dangers, and that failing to address them – often at great expense in lives lost and dollars spent – could spell ruin for the United States.

It’s an odd refrain to hear from the most powerful nation on Earth, and as this week’s guest argues, it’s also inaccurate given that the world safer, freer and healthier than ever before. By playing up threats to America, is the U.S. is losing track of the more serious threats right in front of us?

With us on the program is:


Make the case for why the world beyond America’s borders is safe, and perhaps as safe as ever before –

Michael A. Cohen: “Ever before – I would argue ever. America is a very unique great power, in that we face no real global threats as far as no military rival, no political rival. We have economic competitors, obviously, but no country that threatens our security in the way that you could argue was the case during the Cold War.

We live in a very safe neighborhood. We have Canada to the North and Mexico to the South. We’re on friendly terms – at least for now – with both countries.

We’re allied with I think it’s seven of the 10 largest militaries in the world, either through treaty alliances or defense alliances of some sort. The countries that are marginally threats to us – China and Russia – do not pose any serious military threat to us. Russia, for example, we along with our NATO allies certainly are a healthy deterrent to any kind of Russian territorial aspirations.

And beyond that we live in an era in which there is sort of a commonality of views and values around the world. There’s more democracy than ever before, there are more liberal economies than ever before. The international system is sort of a self-perpetuating system now in a way that it hasn’t been ever before, in that there’s so much commonality between countries about international norms and international laws.

I will say that President Trump has undermined this to a very dangerous degree, but by and large there’s a lot of universal views held across countries, and that also makes America safer. So we do obsess over things like North Korea’s nuclear program or Iran’s nuclear program or what’s happening in the Middle East or terrorism, but the reality is this poses very little threat to us, very little threat to all, and we tend to magnify these threats and inflate them and panic over them when in reality, if we put these threats in a larger context, we’d recognize that they’re not really much danger at all.”

Is there a starting point in American history where you start to see Americans developing this obsession with foreign fears?

Michael A. Cohen: “For me it’s 1947, the beginning of the Cold War, when Harry Truman has to go to Congress and convince them to spend money – I think it was a half a billion dollars – on aid for rebels in Turkey and Greece. And this is apocryphal – I’m not sure it’s true but it’s sort of an apocryphal story – that he was told by Arthur Vandenberg, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to scare the hell out of the American people, which is kind of what he did.

He basically told them that if we don’t confront this threat here it’s going to come back and threaten America, it’s going to undermine our security – this is why we have to do this:

“The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.” – President Harry S. Truman, March 12, 1947

And this became a typical line during the Cold War of politicians saying, ‘here’s why we have to fight a war in Korea, here’s why we have to fight a war in Vietnam, this is why we have to support rebels here, rebels there, because if we don’t then we’re going to have to fight them here.

You know, Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War used to say if we don’t fight them there, they’ll take over Vietnam and next they’ll be in Hawaii and then they’ll be in San Francisco. This was insane. The North Vietnamese has no interest in going to Hawaii – maybe for vacation, but certainly not for invasion.

But this idea, that in order to justify this very broad foreign policy that we had at the time – which we defined our interest as being basically anywhere in the world that we had any kind of economic or political concern – the way to justify it was to scare people, to convince them that if we didn’t confront communism there, that somehow it would imperil our security. And of course as we saw that was not the case. Even after we left Vietnam it didn’t imperil our security.

You saw this rhetoric come back after the Cold War ended. You saw it after 9/11 – the same kind of argument:

“On September the 11th, 2001, we saw what a refuge for extremists on the other side of the world could bring to the streets of our own cities. For the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.” – President George W. Bush, January 10, 2007

This is the kind of fear-based kind of argument that politicians from both parties have consistently used to justify foreign wars, to justify a $600 billion defense budget and justify this limitless definition we have in this country of our national security interests.”

What do you see as the costs when Americans give into fear-based arguments about the world?

Michael A. Cohen: “There’s lots of examples I could point to, but the one that really frustrates me the most is the opioid epidemic. You had 74,000 Americans killed in 2017 from drug overdoses. That’s almost as many as died from guns and cars combined.

This drug issue is one that is not controversial as far as there being a problem. I remember Donald Trump talking about this on the campaign trail quite a bit, criticizing Obama for not doing more about the opiate epidemic. Both parties have agreed this is a serious problem that we’ll need to deal with, and yet there’s been almost no attention paid to it in Congress. Last year they finally passed some legislation, but it was a drop in the bucket to what was needed with this crisis. And meanwhile we’re looking to spend $130 billion more for the Pentagon over the next two years. So this just really speaks to the failure to prioritize these issues and focus on what harms us.

Part of the reason why you don’t have more money to deal with drug issues is because you have this kind of anti-government attitude Republicans, and they don’t want to spend money at home or on healthcare. But I think its important to understand how dangerous that is and the effect that has on Americans. We’re not just losing so many people that we shouldn’t be losing…but it’s also the cost of this. In 2015 the Obama administration estimated that the cost of the opiate epidemic was half a trillion dollars a year.

Think about that for a minute. That’s money that is lost. That’s money in higher healthcare costs, that’s money in lost economic productivity, that’s money in having more people and their children with depression and anxiety, it’s more people whose futures are basically short-circuited and who really have no chance at upward mobility. And if we thought about that being a crisis the way we thought about terrorism being a crisis 18 years ago, we might be able to do something about it.

We need to think bigger about how do make sure everyone in America has healthcare? How do we make sure that our schools are working properly? How do we make sure that we’re prepared to deal with climate change? How do we help families with family leave or childcare? How do we get housing to every Americans? Those are serious issues, and all of them in some way affect our national security, because they effect our productivity, they effect our economy. People think that these are somehow separate from our economic power and our national power. They’re crazy, because they’re absolutely connected.”

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