The Threat of Threat Assessments

You can’t define threats without defining interests.

Leaders of the intelligence community testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee about "worldwide threats" on January 29, 2019.
Leaders of the intelligence community testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee about "worldwide threats" on January 29. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

On Tuesday, the intelligence community published its “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” which concluded—in sober, measured tones—that President Donald Trump is lying: North Korea is not abandoning its nuclear weapons, Iran has not violated the nuclear deal it signed under President Barack Obama, and America’s southern border does not pose a national-security crisis. Trump responded by ranting, “They are wrong! … Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” And America’s top newspapers covered the melee as yet another round in the battle between Trump and Washington’s grown-ups.

So far, so familiar. But lost in the ruckus is a deeper problem: the threat assessment itself, which epitomizes much of what’s wrong with the way Beltway grown-ups discuss foreign policy. For all his lies and crimes, Trump over the past several years has asked some legitimate questions about America’s expansive role in the world, questions shared by many Americans in both parties. The threat assessment is a case study in how to evade them.

The giveaway comes a mere two paragraphs in: “The order of the topics presented in this statement does not necessarily indicate the relative importance or magnitude of the threat in the view of the Intelligence Community.” That’s an understatement. Nothing in the assessment clearly indicates the “relative importance or magnitude” of the many threats it describes. There’s a reason for that: Prioritizing the threats America faces without defining America’s interests is impossible. And although the assessment uses the word interests 31 times, it makes little effort to define what they are.

The result is a cascade of claims that America is threatened without much explanation of how. For instance, “Global jihadist groups in parts of Africa and Asia in the last year have expanded their abilities to strike local US interests.” Sounds bad. But what are these “local US interests,” and why are they interests at all? If the intelligence agencies are worried that terrorists will attack U.S. troops in Niger, as they did in 2017, they should first explain how it benefits ordinary Americans to have troops in Niger in the first place. If they’re worried that terrorists will attack the Nigerien government, they should explain why America has a stake in its rule.

Elsewhere, the assessment declares that “in Yemen, Iran’s support to the Huthis, including supplying ballistic missiles, risks escalating the conflict and poses a serious threat to US partners and interests in the region.” That’s an important claim. It justifies America’s participation in a Saudi blockade and bombing campaign that has helped put half of Yemen’s population at risk of famine. But what are the American interests to which Iranian support for the Houthis “poses a serious threat”? Why should it matter to ordinary Americans whether the regime in Sanaa tilts toward the murderous theocracy in Tehran rather than the murderous theocracy in Riyadh? And why does Iranian influence threaten American interests more than Saudi Arabia’s pattern of dropping American bombs on Yemeni civilians, which fuels rage against the United States? Trump has an answer to these questions: The Saudis boost the American economy by buying American weapons. It’s ugly, but at least it’s an answer. The threat assessment offers none.

Intelligence types might reply that defining America’s interests is an inherently political exercise that should be conducted by America’s elected leaders. It’s above their pay grade. The problem with that argument is that labeling something a threat presupposes an interest. Unless I value my broccoli, your threat to take it from my plate isn’t actually a threat. Thus, by detailing the threats America faces, the intelligence community smuggles in assumptions about American interests through the back door.

When policy makers begin with threats and reason backwards to interests, they give adversaries the initiative. In his book Strategies of Containment, the historian John Lewis Gaddis argues that this is what happened between 1946, when George Kennan argued for containing Soviet expansion into regions of the world of special importance to the U.S., and 1950, when NSC-68 called for containing Soviet expansion everywhere. Gaddis writes:

At the heart of these differences between Kennan and the authors of NSC-68 was a simple inversion of intellectual procedure: where Kennan tended to look at the Soviet threat in terms of an independently established concept of irreducible interests, NSC-68 derived its view of American interests primarily from its perception of the Soviet threat … The consequences of this approach were more than procedural: they were nothing less than to transfer to the Russians control over what United States interests were at any given point. To define interests in terms of threats is, after all, to make interests a function of threats—interests will then expand or contract as threats do.

That’s what the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” does. It begins with America’s adversaries: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, ISIS. It charts any advances they have made in their military, economic, and technological capacities, and any parts of the globe where they seem to be advancing. Thus we learn that “China is currying favor with numerous Pacific Island nations” and that “Russia may also continue its diplomatic and military cultivation of Southeast Asian partners.” The implication is that America should devote time and money, and perhaps weaponry and troops, to pushing back. And in this way, the intelligence community defines American interests as virtually unlimited. When you read the threat assessments year after year, you notice that every year, the threats grow. Which isn’t entirely surprising, given that a broader definition of American interests justifies a larger budget for America’s spies.

There is a link between the swollen, reactive definition of American interests laid out in NSC-68 and America’s willingness to go to war to prevent communist expansion in the geopolitical backwater of Vietnam. And there is a link between the expansion of American interests following the Cold War—an expansion that led NATO onto former Soviet soil and American troops into Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq—and the election of Donald Trump. Trump, as many have noted, is a Jacksonian (as in Andrew Jackson): He’s a militaristic isolationist. And he won the presidency in part by arguing that America’s leaders were spending too much money—and spilling too much blood—abroad, and doing too little to protect Americans at home.

In his crude and ugly way, Trump argued for defining American interests more narrowly. The men and women who write documents like the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” generally disagree, but they do so obliquely, without grounding their assessment of threats in an argument about the interests of ordinary Americans. And thus, they fail to answer Trump’s challenge. In the seemingly endless battle between Trump and the grown-ups, the grown-ups bear some of the blame, too.