Intelligence and Ideology: the Exaggeration of the Threat

Photograph Source: Pedro Ribeiro Simões – CC BY 2.0

The three major military powers (the United States, Russia, and China) systematically and consistently engage in inflation of the threats they face. Each side tends to see the worst motivation and the greatest capabilities in assessing its adversaries in order to justify its own actions. This problem was endemic throughout the Cold War, particularly in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan used exaggerated and politicized threat assessments to justify the largest peacetime increase in defense spending and to rally American support for the buildup.  Ironically, the United States was doing so at the very time that the Soviet Union was in political and economic disarray, eventually dissolving in 1991.

The Department of Defense deliberately exaggerated the Soviet threat throughout the Cold War in order to gain congressional authorization and appropriation for desired military weaponry.  Their assessments were consistently inflated, regarding Soviet military manpower in Eastern Europe; the size of Soviet chemical weapons stocks; the range of Soviet military aircraft; and overall deployments in Eastern Europe.  These distortions contributed to delays in negotiating both strategic and tactical disarmament agreements. The Committee on the Present Danger used bloated estimates and assessments to contend that a window of vulnerability existed in U.S. capabilities vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.  Harvard Professor Richard Pipes was central to this effort while serving in Reagan’s National Security Council.

President Harry S. Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency in order to gain more objective assessments of our adversaries, but CIA estimates often contributed to the problem. Their estimates were far more accurate than those of the Defense Department’s Defense Intelligence Agency, but Soviet military manning and procurement was never as robust as the CIA estimated.  The CIA depiction of a Soviet military Goliath with global reach and even control of international terrorism bolstered Reagan’s portrayal of an “evil empire.”  CIA publications regularly discussed a “relentless Soviet buildup” and a “disquieting index of Soviet intentions,” which reflected institutional bias and not reality.  CIA distortions of military issues also contributed to delays in disarmament negotiation with the Soviet Union, which is documented in Secretary of State George P. Shultz’s excellent memoir (“Triumph and Turmoil: My Years as Secretary of State”).

History is repeating itself in the hyperbolic drumbeat from policymakers, politicians, and pundits on China.  Former vice president Joe Biden campaigned in 2020 as a critic of Donald Trump’s confrontational policy toward China; President Biden, however, has maintained the same level of confrontation.  It is noteworthy that the first two official visits to the White House involved Japanese Prime Minister Suga and South Korean President Moon.  Biden and his hard-line advisors in the National Security Council and the State Department don’t seem to understand that China—unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War—can’t be contained.  China, unlike the Soviet Union, is not a one-dimensional military power.

The conservative editorial and oped writers of the Washington Post have been particularly aggressive, indulging the notion of China as an “existential threat,” which is nonsensical.  Last week, the Post  carried an oped by Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), who  exaggerated the Soviet threat throughout the 1980s and the Russian threat in his campaign against Barack Obama in 2012.  Romney’s oped is typical of the fear mongering of the Post’s commentary.  Romney, like so many Post writersexaggerates Chinese defense spending, military power, and political aspirations.  Romney’s warning that China is “on track to surpass us economically, militarily and geopolitically” is senseless. His charge that China is trying to “replace” us echoes the white supremacist tropes heard in Charlottesville several years ago.

In actual fact, the United States spends more on defense and intelligence than the rest of the world combined, including four times as much as China and ten times as much as Russia.  China and Russia have no military allies, unlike the United States, which can rely on Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean defense spending against China as well as European defense spending against Russia.  China and Russia have forged their closest relationship since the 1950s, but there are limits to the cooperation that Beijing and Moscow can achieve given their long-time memories of intense rivalry and even border confrontations during the intense Sino-Soviet confrontation from the late 1950s to the 1980s.  At some point,  Russian President Vladimir Putin may grow tired of playing second fiddle to China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping.

China must also contend with the rise of the so-called “Asian tigers” (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand) as well as the revitalization of the “Quad” (the United States, India, Australia, and Japan).  These nations are capable of “bandwagoning” with the United States to limit Chinese influence throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia.  Unlike the Middle East, where most states are threatened by militant challenges to their legitimacy, the Asian states emphasize the importance of sovereignty and noninterference.  China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” has opened the door to U.S. access to naval and air facilities throughout the region.  China has nothing comparable to the power projection capabilities of the United States and our tens of thousands of troops in sensitive locations.

China is making the same mistake that the Soviet Union and its foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, made during the Cold War, when a great many nations became wary of Moscow’s ambitions.  The international reaction to China’s assertiveness includes a European Union that has shelved a landmark EU-China investment deal and an Australia that is conducting a major debate on the limits to bilateral dealings with Beijing.

The mainstream media’s ultimate scare tactic revolves around Taiwan, particularly when Xi Jinping proclaims the goal of achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the centennial anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.  Pressure tactics could spin out of control, but conservative Chinese leaders presumably understand that any unwelcome outcome from the use of force would challenge the judgment and competence of the leadership.  As long as political stability and economic growth remain paramount in Beijing, there is less risk of a Chinese decision to use force against Taiwan.

U.S. policymakers must find a way to compartmentalize our concerns and problems with China, separating the potentially adversarial issues (e.g., Taiwan, South China Sea) from those that are competitive and cooperative.  The United States needs to recognize that China will play an increasingly important global role, and the diplomatic test for Washington is exploiting  Beijing’s assertiveness on the one hand, while pursuing Beijing’s support as a stakeholder on the other hand.  Since the United States and China share similar views on non-proliferation, particularly the need to control the nuclear policies of Iran and North Korea; climate control; terrorism; and piracy, there are ample opportunities for cooperation.  As far as competition goes, the bill in the House of Representatives for pouring $120 billion into jump-starting scientific innovation (including semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and robotics) makes far more sense than tasking the Department of Defense with additional force deployments in the Pacific.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for