The Reassuring Presence of Multiple Threats

In April, the US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, presented an important document produced by the nation’s intelligence community, the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment. It was designed to demonstrate that the newly inaugurated president, Joe Biden, is ready to respond to any or all of the manifold threats, fear of which has been the key to unifying the nation.

China and Iran figure prominently, as do the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida. Beltway politicians will find the continuity with the fears of previous administrations reassuring. Even though the last three — the Islamic Republic of Iran, IS and al-Qaida — would not even exist today had the United States not actively provoked them into existence through its obsessive meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, many will be pleased to note that their confirmed presence on the list continues to justify the intelligence community’s ever-expanding scope. China, of course, is a special case because it has never threatened the US militarily or economically. Yet the headline of a New York Times article on the report reads, “China Poses Biggest Threat to U.S., Intelligence Report Says.”


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How indeed should we understand the Chinese threat, announced as the biggest of them all? Haines explains that China is guilty of “employing a comprehensive approach to demonstrate its growing strength.” The Chinese leadership has apparently failed to understand that only one nation in the world is authorized to “demonstrate its growing strength.” They should accept that it is madness to think there may be a need for China’s strength to increase. If the Chinese simply allow the US to govern the world’s affairs, they can be assured that they will always be in safe, democratic hands.

Russia predictably appears in the full list of threats, although Haines admits that it “does not want a conflict with the United States.” That may be so, but everyone who has paid the slightest attention to the verities associated with Russiagate should now realize that Vladimir Putin’s cronies or lackies have developed a quasi-nuclear capacity to publish misinformation on Facebook, a reprehensible act that no other nation, party or person would ever think of doing. It appears that such practice can be fatal for democracy, even leading to the corrupting of an American election, the pristine model of transparent democratic procedure. 

Haines focuses on Russia’s use of “malign influence campaigns.” This apparently means cherry-picking only negative things to say about the United States, whether factual or invented. Haines recycles the favorite trope of Russiagate enthusiasts over the past five years when she speaks of Russia’s intent to “sow discord.” Whenever Americans don’t agree on some fundamental things about their own country, the Russians must have had something to do with it.

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Haines gets to the end of her list without mention one nation some people find profoundly disturbing: Saudi Arabia, known for its extremely repressive social practices, its summary justice against anyone suspected of “sowing discord” (which may even include Washington Post journalists) and its brutal military campaigns designed to produce the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. But for the fact of its special relationship with the US based on oil and money, there might be some merit in considering Saudi as a possible threat, especially after the 2019 shooting of three Americans by a Saudi officer in Pensacola, Florida and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

New evidence emerged this week concerning the training in the US of Khashoggi’s murderers. It revealed a suspicious level of complicity between the Saudi regime, which has funded terrorism for decades, and the US State Department, which authorized the educational collaboration. When asked for comment, State Department spokesman Ned Price explained: “This administration insists on responsible use of U.S. origin defense equipment and training by our allies and partners, and considers appropriate responses if violations occur. Saudi Arabia faces significant threats to its territory, and we are committed to working together to help Riyadh strengthen its defenses.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Significant threats:

For the US government, any person, group, nation or even abstract idea that in any way challenges the global network of bulwarks and bastions, weapons and sanctions that constitute a body of resources dedicated to national defense, equally including the regimes of sanguinary dictators, predatory businesses and the actions of irresponsible mercenaries, all of whom are guided by the democratic ideals that drive such policies and actions

Contextual Note

The twin concepts of threat (the action of others) and defense (our actions) sum up the logic of the security state. So long as a threat exists — and the more that can be listed the merrier — the system of defense can thrive and grow. Haines calls the money spent on defense and surveillance an investment, which most experts on Wall Street and any true economist might find slightly abusive. Here is how she describes the value of the intelligence assessment of threats: “In short, at no point has it been more important to invest in our norms and institutions, our workforce, and the integration of our work. Doing so, provides us with the opportunity to meet the challenges we face, to pull together as a society, and to promote resilience and innovation.” Investment, in this sense, simply means more money that the US can spend, basically on creating or entertaining fear.

Fomenting fear is easy, especially if you have the means (unlimited budget) of making it appear serious, detailed and scientific. Interestingly, in her quest for thoroughness, Haines correctly designates climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic as major threats. Everyone already knows the threat is real. Rather than using her platform to trumpet what everyone knows, it might be more productive to look at mobilizing resources to confront such threats. She could, for example, have signaled the urgency of finding ways to allow the developing world to produce its own vaccines rather than beg for Western handouts. But that would raise the delicate question of pharmaceutical patents, which must be protected even at the cost of the world’s health. Instead, the threat she chooses to highlight is the “vaccine diplomacy” of Russia and China.

As for climate change, Haines highlights the grim perspective for the globe itself and especially for “vulnerable populations.” But there is nary a word about the contributing causes or the prospect for possible solutions, such as calling into question the economic system that feeds the crisis. This in spite of Haines’ insistence that the intelligence agencies are not simply Cassandras, put in place to strike fear into brave citizens’ hearts, but have a positive role to play. “The American people should know as much as possible about the threats facing our nation and what their intelligence agencies are doing to protect them,” she says. It would be nice to learn more about the “doing” part of it.

Historical Note

Since the Second World War, the entire pattern for economic success and industrial growth has been structured around the notion of fear. The Cold War officialized fear as the major motivating factor serving to keep capitalism intact, essentially by transforming free market capitalism into monopolistically structured state capitalism (privatized socialism), in which the needs of defense drive innovation. In the first half of the 20th century, free market capitalism had begun to reveal all the contradictions Karl Marx predicted for it. After the Wall Street crash in 1929, capitalism was on the brink of collapse in the US, which also happened to be the nation that controlled the debt of the European nations who had spent all their capitalistic resources in a catastrophic world war.

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During the 1930s, Nazism and Soviet communism, two brands of militaristic totalitarianism, became the principal objects of fear for Americans. The business class feared the communists and the working class, decimated by capitalism’s failure, feared the fascists. The Nazis emerged as the threat that justified the war effort. Once that was successful, Washington’s elite elected the Russian communists to play the role.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Islamist terrorism eventually slid into the role of existential threat number one. But the policies mobilized to defeat it had the effect of seriously weakening the American system of state capitalism. With things becoming desperate, new threats were needed. Avril Haines and the Biden administration have produced the updated catalog.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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