Over the Horizon: Defense Budget Scare Tactics

Over the Horizon: Defense Budget Scare Tactics

Defense budget advocacy can be a dry business. While debating the technical aspects of some weapon or another is boring enough to a lay audience, arguing the finer points of industrial policy can put all but the most dedicated bureaucrats -- and lobbyists -- to sleep. Accordingly, defense policy advocates often rely on scare stories designed to shock and awe, winning an audience's attention and credulity with dramatic claims of horrific outcomes should the wrong path be taken. If the story succeeds in creating the desired effect, no one realizes until too late that it was all a sham.

Perhaps the finest example of this tactic was a United States Air Force documentary, first aired on PBS in 1979, called "First Strike." In the film, the United States suffers a sudden, disarming nuclear strike at the hands of the Soviet Union and quickly surrenders to Soviet domination. Various talking heads then discuss the scenario, all advocating increased defense spending and nuclear readiness. The video is well-made and altogether shocking; it is also, strategically speaking, nonsense, depending on an absurd set of assumptions about U.S. and Soviet military readiness. Another example is the 2009 film "33 Minutes" by the Heritage Foundation, which purports to inform Americans of the dire threat that ballistic missiles pose to the U.S. heartland. The straightforward purpose of the film is missile-defense advocacy, but the scenarios discussed -- including an electro-magnetic pulse attack on the United States, and the notion that a terrorist state could attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation -- are simply ridiculous.

The most recent entry into this genre also comes courtesy of the Heritage Foundation, with an assist from the Weekly Standard. Mackenzie Eaglen and Bryan McGrath have penned an essay arguing that the United States needs to strengthen its commitment to seapower in order to maintain not only its global influence, but also the modern global economic system. Detailed at length in a Heritage Foundation report and in a briefer version at the Weekly Standard, Eaglen and McGrath's nightmare scenario depicts the United States circa 2025 as a broken country, friendless and at the mercy of a nefarious coalition made up of China, Russia, India, Korea, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Syria. Not pretty and altogether alarming. But before we beg the authors to save us, we might want to consider whether the wool is being pulled over our eyes. How does this dreadful state of affairs come about?

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