The real threat unmasked

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has responded to George W. Bush’s virulent nationalism and sabre rattling toward Iraq quite appropriately, saying no thanks, there is no link between Iraq and the terrorism strike and, until there is proof, we don’t want the war expanded. This is the crux of the Canadian case. But it is unlikely to hold up. If there isn’t a terror link now, cynics say, the White House will surely find one.

The cynics are probably correct. There’s a common and frightening thread in the American history of the past several decades to be considered here: the repeated tendency to overstate and exaggerate, if not fabricate, enemy power. It is what some have referred to as “threat inflation.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find the latest example. While no one should fault the United States for its initial response to the terrorist attacks, critics are all over Mr. Bush for broadening his campaign beyond it to include the so-called “axis of evil.” The axis trio — Iran, Iraq and North Korea — do not constitute a fraction of the threat of the old Soviet Union (nor, for that matter, do a loose band of terrorists) and none of these countries has been tied to 9-11.

But no matter, these are times in which any threat can be sold as leviathan. And the United States, whose hegemony is already unprecedented, whose defence spending already dwarfs that of every other nation, is adding a staggering $48-billion to its military budget outlay. Were Dwight Eisenhower around, he’d probably be muttering about the power of what he termed the military-industrial complex.

It was in Ike’s decade, 50 years ago, that threat inflation got under way in earnest, and its history should give Canada and other allies pause when considering the legitimacy of the information Washington puts before them in times of crisis.

To begin that decade, Paul Nitze brought in his landmark defence document, NSC-68. A scaremongering classic, NSC-68 wildly exaggerated Soviet military strength. Secretary of state Dean Acheson would later concede that truth was not the primary concern in bringing forth the analysis, the goal being, instead, to terrify congressmen into voting in a dramatic defence-spending increase.

The exaggerations of NSC-68 helped stoke the arms race. They contributed to one of the more sordid examples of threat inflation, the McCarthyism of the 1950s, which falsely tagged thousands, Canadians included, as Communist sympathizers.

There followed John Kennedy’s invocation in the 1960 election campaign of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. The alleged disparity frightened Canadians and Americans alike, but as the Kennedy men later admitted, it was nonsense. There was, indeed, a missile gap — one that broadly favoured the United States.

Through this same period, many experts believe American paranoia over anything left-of-centre created undue suspicions about Cuba’s Fidel Castro being a dire threat. He was thus driven into the Soviet camp and before long the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink.

To a large degree, it was threat inflation that led to the Vietnam tragedy. Grown American men got caught up in the domino theory, believing that if one puny Southeast Asian country tumbled to the Communists, so too would nation-states everywhere. Lester Pearson tried to disabuse Lyndon Johnson of the naive notion, but was unsuccessful. Mr. Johnson greatly exaggerated a 1964 incident in which American destroyers came under fire from North Vietnamese vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin to give himself broad war powers.

Of course, no stranger to painting the world black and white was Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan made his mark with dark visions of Soviet encroachment and “us-versus-them” declarations — sound familiar? — suggesting the United States could never make peace with such an ungodly enemy.

The White House hawks mocked Pierre Trudeau’s world peace mission, which was an idealistic attempt to get the Cold War antagonists to the table two decades ago. But it turned out that like Mr. Pearson, prime minister Trudeau was correct — and presciently so. The superpowers did get together and they did achieve peace — on some of the terms Mr. Trudeau had envisaged. And it was Mikhail Gorbachev, the man from the “evil empire,” as Ronald Reagan called it, who was the catalyst in bringing about the great thaw.

Mr. Gorbachev made threat inflation difficult. But Mr. Reagan wasn’t entirely at a loss; he simply turned to other targets. He said Nicaragua posed a mortal threat to the American mainland — even resorting to charts to show how the Sandinistas could lead a blitzkrieg up through the Sierra Madre. His obsession cost him dearly, as it it formed the basis of the Iran-Contra scandal.

As the Cold War ended, America was without a major threat. Enter Iraq, which stupidly stepped into the vacuum as a legitimate threat with its assault on Kuwait.

Bill Clinton used threat inflation more for its timing, choosing the night before his impeachment vote to assert that the dire challenge from Saddam Hussein had reached its zenith and that the bombing of Baghdad had to begin that very evening — which it did.

Certainly not all threats to the United States have been exaggerated. But given the consistency of the record, it’s hard not to be suspicious of present-day American claims.

No one could contend that George W. Bush resorted to threat inflation in the early weeks following the September catastrophe. The attack was real; the response entirely justified. Terrorist potential hadn’t been inflated by Washington. Rather, it had been deflated.

But the fear was that, realizing the political gold the September massacre had ironically brought him, Mr. Bush would cynically use the threat of terror as a hammer to impose a new American order and settle old scores, such as his father’s in Iraq.

And now we see the President’s quasi holy war, and now we witness his with-us or against-us incantations and his targeting of nations that had nothing to do with Sept. 11.

Instead of seeking rapprochement with adversaries, instead of following the way of Trudeau-Gorbachev-Reagan on East-West relations, this President appears bent on a path of belligerence that, while toppling some terror suspects, will likely sow the seeds of lasting conflict and breed untold numbers of others.

His power is perhaps unprecedented. All he needs to do to ratchet up political support is draw on the fears of his people, using terrorism today the way others used communism in the 1950s. In this climate, one in which Ottawa will be tempted to go along out of fear of economic reprisals, Canada cannot be intimidated. Its Pearsonian-Trudeauvian tradition of moderation is in greater need than ever.

Lawrence Martin, a former Globe and Mail correspondent in Moscow and Washington, is the author of two books on Canada-U.S. relations, The Presidents and the Prime Ministers and Pledge of Allegiance, and the biography Chrétien: The Will to Win.

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