Stephen Walt has a pretty strong list outlining “The Threatmonger’s Handbook”. Of special interest are rules 2 (“Everything is connected”), 4 (“Portray allies as a liability rather than an asset”), 5 (“Whenever possible, depict opponents as part of a strong and highly cohesive movement, and preferably one united by strong ideological convictions”) and 6 (“We must act now!”). All of these are present throughout the foreign policy commentariat, and much of area studies: threats from every corner of the world are often billed as the most pressing and potentially crushing peril. Even experts and pundits focusing on the world’s most dangerous regions are often guilty of exaggerating the level of risk emanating from their subject areas ad nauseam. If all this trouble came from the ignorant generalist pundit class, made of columnists and talking heads present more because of their ease in prose or their choice of hair parting, it would be more excusable. But one need only look at the legions of area studies experts working for lobbies and big firms to push through weapons sales, academic funding and other perks for themselves.
The central question around this vexation is why? No academic or public figure would admit to simple hunger for recognition, funding, the betterment of lobbies or other base motivations. Most would likely wrap their exaggerations about the dire threat of radical Islam, the urgency of a remote semi-democracy’s “survival” or the perniciousness of one or the other regime in the banner of the national interest. But in reality, financial desires or necessities tend to drive some of the heaviest threat assessments (academic departments often need all the money they can get for research and programming and appealing to the government for assistance is a valid and legal means of getting it). This has been remarked upon on this blog before, especially with reference to public intellectuals and area studies experts. The result is often a distorted public perception of certain problems in international affairs and a warped political discourse. All the while, those with anything to say on the new “existential” threat to national security maintain relevance and expensive business suits.
At the same time, the public interest and funding raised by those worried that the sky is falling often benefits more rational scholarship and policy making in the medium and long term. Still, one example that boggles the mind: that so much attention has been spent on improving the limited American capacity in the Arabic language (I know, some readers are saying What?), but other strategic languages, like Pashto — the language of much of the Taliban and its sympathizers in Pakistan — is tremendously low and little has been done in the way of raising awareness or concern about this. It would be interesting to take a poll of how many Americans actually know what Pashto is. There are certainly myriad reasons why Pashto and other languages continue to elude the American foreign policy bureaucracy and the domestic academic environment, part of it probably poor estimation of the need and a shortage of qualified teachers Statesside. The end result: only two people in the American Embassy in Kabul have Pashto skills, far from what is needed given contemporary circumstances. The biggest beneficiaries from recent federal funding for area studies since the dawn of our century have been, I would imagine, Arabists and China experts. It may have been wise to have invested as rigorously (surely if not more so) in Pashto and other Afghan languages as in Arabic.
In any event, threat mongering has its draw backs and its boons. Eventually, though if those mongers could calibrate their alarm so as to be more proximate to where funding ought to go the boons would be in higher frequency. Even still, too often these kinds cause needless trepidation on behalf of businesses and interest sets to the detriment of other, more truly pressing, concerns.