Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: The Strategic Value of Threat Deflation

By Joshua Rovner
Sunday, October 5, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: As the United States goes to war in Iraq and Syria, President Obama and senior administration officials have repeatedly stressed the threat the Islamic State poses and emphasized the organization’s brutality: views echoed by many Republicans and by pundits of all persuasions. Joshua Rovner, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University, calls instead for playing down the threat, warning that exaggerating the Islamic State’s strength has pernicious policy and intelligence consequences and may even make the enemy stronger.


No one doubts the brutality of the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). Its grisly beheadings of Western journalists are splashed across social media, where horrifying stories of violence in ISIL-controlled territory abound. Civilians living under the shadow of ISIL face daily threats of coercion, torture, organized sexual violence, and execution. Worse, the group appears to be richer and smarter than its predecessors in Iraq and its competitors in the Syrian civil war. It coordinated relatively large numbers of fighters during its rapid march into Iraq this summer, and it aspires to build a permanent state fueled by extremist ideology in the heart of the Middle East. Some fear that it will become more powerful and dangerous if it consolidates its position. A durable sanctuary will give it the opportunity to expand its reach by planning new terrorist attacks abroad, and a place to train and indoctrinate new foot soldiers looking for a taste of jihad. Right now, ISIL is making life miserable for those under its control. In the future, we are told, it will make life deadly for everyone.

Western leaders are playing up all those dangers, portraying ISIL as an existential threat to the international order that requires a grand international response. In his address at the United Nations last week, President Obama stated,“it is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along the fault lines of tribe or sect, race or religion.” He then declared that only a “broad coalition” could take on ISIL’s “network of death,” and he lauded the fact that dozens of nations have already signed up. Not to be outdone, British prime minister David Cameron told the UN that ISIL has “murderous plans to expand its borders well beyond Iraq and Syria, and to carry out terrorist atrocities right across the world.” Secretary of State John Kerry echoed both the seriousness of the threat and the importance of coordinated global action, predicting that the coalition will “continue to grow and deepen” because “the world will simply not stand by to watch as ISIL’s evil spreads.”

DSC_7285It’s no surprise that Western leaders have been using such vivid language. In the wake of the ISIL beheadings, U.S. and allied public opinion increasingly backed the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. But the idea of another ground war remains unpopular, and there are reasons to believe that public support for military action will erode. For all of ISIL’s brutality, it is not clear to everyone that the group is a genuine threat to Western security. Others fear that intervention will implicate the United States and its allies in a long-running sectarian bloodbath that they cannot possibly control. Worst of all, the use of force to prevent terrorism might backfire if it inspires revenge attacks against the West. Given these concerns, leaders over the last few weeks probably believed they had to ratchet up the rhetoric to win support for what could be a very long military campaign.

Now is the time to ratchet it down. Overwrought warnings about ISIL and bold promises to destroy the group may help sway public opinion, but they will also create a set of new problems that risk undermining U.S. strategy.

First, leaders are likely to create unrealistic expectations by promising decisive victory. ISIL operates across porous borders and has already demonstrated the ability to shift back and forth across these borders in response to external pressure. More importantly, ISIL has quickly become something of an ideological brand, meaning that upstart militant groups may simply adopt the ISIL logo and message rather than inventing their own. The United States can make progress through patient and painstaking counter-network operations, but there will always be some individuals who claim fealty to ISIL and promote its propaganda. For this reason, there will be no clear moment of triumph for the U.S.-led coalition. Of course, observers may expect nothing less than victory after hearing policymakers declare they will destroy ISIL root and branch, and the absence of an obvious victory may transform public support into public cynicism. In these circumstances, even the smallest terrorist attack will seem like a defeat for the United States, even if U.S. forces are largely successful.

Subsequent efforts to revive public support may set the stage for mission creep. Degrading ISIL’s capabilities is a reasonable goal, but battlefield success won’t feel much like victory as long as Syrian and Iraqi politics remain dysfunctional and fractious. Moreover, competent ground forces will be required to secure areas retaken from ISIL, but the Iraqi army’s dreadful performance in majority-Sunni areas suggests that it is both unwilling and unable to perform that role. The upshot will be increasing pressure on the administration to send more U.S. troops. Indeed, dissatisfaction with the air war has already led to calls for a ground campaign and an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces. It is worth noting that the U.S. army is already sending a division headquarters to coordinate the effort against ISIL, despite the fact that the U.S. has only deployed a battalion-sized force. In other words, it is erecting the infrastructure needed to support many additional personnel if and when the administration decides to escalate.

Second, hyping the ISIL threat may have pernicious effects on intelligence. Policymakers have already cited intelligence in their public claims about the group. For example, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, citing recent intelligence reports, has spoken ominously about the group’s “global aspirations,” warning that “if left unchecked, ISIL will directly threaten our homeland and our allies.” The problem for intelligence agencies is that they are now on record as offering the analytical foundation for escalating military action. Intelligence officials may be reluctant to reassess their findings later, even if new information emerges showing that ISIL is not quite as capable or dangerous as they originally believed, because such a reassessment would imply an embarrassing admission of their earlier error. Analytical inertia is likely to take hold as a result, which in turn will make it harder for leaders to measure progress in the war. This is precisely what occurred after the intelligence community released its estimate of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction in October 2002. Having gone public, intelligence officials were uninterested in revisiting the estimate in the months leading up to the war, despite indications that its conclusions were wrong.

Stressing the importance of the global counterterrorist coalition may also make it harder to recognize success against ISIL. U.S. leaders clearly want to avoid the perception that this is simply another American intervention in the Middle East, so they emphasize a common cause and a shared international commitment to eradicating ISIL. But no coalition lasts forever, especially when the vast U.S. lead in military and intelligence capabilities means it will be doing most of the heavy lifting. Smaller partners will have obvious incentives to pass the buck, and some may choose to exit altogether if their cooperation with Washington becomes a political liability. Under these circumstances the administration will increasingly worry about the health and future of the coalition. Fears of a diplomatic breakdown may convince policymakers that the coalition’s strategy is failing, even if military operations against ISIL are successful.

If this seems far-fetched, it is worth remembering the U.S. experience against Iraq in the 1990s. As I explain in the current issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies, the United States and its coalition partners methodically shattered Iraqi military and economic power in the years following the first Gulf War. By the end of the decade it was no longer a meaningful threat to U.S. interests or regional stability. Ironically, however, U.S. leaders increasingly feared that they were “losing the peace” because the coalition arrayed against Saddam Hussein was fraying. Because they fixated on the strength of the coalition, they ignored the patent weakness of the enemy. The more the Obama administration hangs its strategy against ISIL on a strong international effort, the more likely it is to fall into the same trap, and the less likely it is that it will be able to recognize victory.

Most importantly, the rhetoric about ISIL has given the group prestige it does not deserve. Washington may inadvertently help ISIL’s recruiting efforts by hyping its capacity for mayhem. Would-be radicals are also more likely to gravitate to an organization that seems to be at the vanguard of what they see as a struggle against the infidel West, especially if they believe it is strong enough to win. (It is probably no accident that Al Qaeda has suddenly jump-started its own propaganda, including the announcement that it has opened a franchise in India.) President Obama has stressed that long-term success against ISIL is a generational struggle, and that requires new efforts to dissuade young people from joining the group. Unfortunately, the dire warnings coming from the White House may end up pushing them toward it instead.

So what should the president say? He should say less. When he does speak, he should remove adjectives emphasizing ISIL’s power and ruthlessness. The group has already proven adept at propaganda; it does not need our help and we should not give it. Instead, the president should offer sobering reminders about patient and deliberate U.S. efforts to deal with other terrorist networks. The administration should also stop making far-fetched claims about global solidarity, when it is obvious that not all our partners have the same view of the threat or the appropriate response. Finally, the administration should take current intelligence out of the public debate. Only then can it hope to inform U.S. strategy without becoming a political football.


Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011).