Micah Zenko

Exaggeration Nation

The threat posed by the Islamic State to the United States is being overblown to a dangerous -- and untruthful -- degree. So why are we letting our government officials get away with it?

The habitual practice of threat inflation as a means of catalyzing focus on new enemies in U.S. foreign-policy debates has become so commonplace that it now goes unnoticed no matter how absurd.

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The Myth of the Indispensable Nation

The world doesn’t need the United States nearly as much as we like to think it does.

In 1996, political journalist Sidney Blumenthal and foreign policy historian James Chace struggled to come up with a memorable phrase to describe America's post-Cold War role in the world. "Finally, together, we hit on it: ‘indispensable nation.' Eureka! I passed it on first to Madeleine Albright," Blumenthal recalled.

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Terrorists Among Us

Americans have good reason to be afraid of another attack on U.S. soil -- only it's not going to come from the Islamic State.

As they have been intermittently since 9/11, Americans are again terrified about terrorism. Those who think a domestic terrorist attack is "likely" in the next few months increased by 10 percentage points from March to September, while the percentage who think the country is "less safe" than before 9/11 rose by 19 points over the past year. This change in perception occurred precisely as the Islamic State intended with the dissemination of its horrific beheading videos of two U.S. citizens in late August and early September, which 94 percent of Americans saw or heard about -- the highest percentage of any news event in the last five years. Despite this spike in fear, as several U.S. officials declared soon after: "We have no credible information that [the Islamic State] is planning to attack the homeland of the United States."

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The Shape-Shifting Coalition

America's allies in the fight against the Islamic State may seem willing now. But what happens when they want to start bombing Assad?

On Sept. 19, six weeks after the United States began airstrikes on Islamic State targets, France announced that a Rafale fighter jet had destroyed a terrorist supply depot in northeastern Iraq. From that one airstrike, the multinational military coalition attacking the Islamic State emerged. Since then, eight other countries have either bombed suspected Islamic State targets in Iraq or Syria, or declared that they will in the future. The relatively sudden formation of the coalition -- a group that otherwise agrees on little else -- participating in the kinetic military element of the international campaign against the Islamic State is remarkable, though unsurprising. Many of these governments had been eager to intervene in Syria's civil war for years and, more recently, to attack the Islamic State directly. Yet it was only once U.S. President Barack Obama authorized the first airstrikes that the rest signed up, having secured the full weight of U.S. military power to backstop the effort.

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Mission Improbable

When it comes to fighting terror, America’s leaders have offered nothing but wildly unrealistic strategies destined to fail. And Obama's plan to defeat the Islamic State is no different.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attempted to clarify the United States' military objectives against the militant organization the Islamic State (IS). He noted: "We will do everything possible that we can do to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people and Western values and our interests."

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