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International Security 29.1 (2004) 5-48

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Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas

The Selling of the Iraq War

Mature democracies such as the United States are generally believed to be better at making foreign policy than other regime types. Especially, the strong civic institutions and robust marketplaces of ideas in mature democracies are thought to substantially protect them from severe threat inflation and "myths of empire" that could promote excessively risky foreign policy adventures and wars. The marketplace of ideas helps to weed out unfounded, mendacious, or self-serving foreign policy arguments because their proponents cannot avoid wide-ranging debate in which their reasoning and evidence are subject to public scrutiny.1

The marketplace of ideas, however, failed to fulfill this function in the 2002-03 U.S. foreign policy debate over going to war with Iraq. By now there isbroad agreement among U.S. foreign policy experts, as well as much of the American public and the international community, that the threat assessments that President George W. Bush and his administration used to justify the waragainst Iraq were greatly exaggerated, and on some dimensions wholly baseless.

Postwar revelations have made clear that President Bush and top officials of his administration were determined from early 2001 to bring about regime change in Iraq.2 It was not until the summer of 2002, however, that they began [End Page 5] their public campaign to generate support for preventive war to achieve this objective. They made four main arguments to persuade the public of their case against Saddam Hussein: (1) he was an almost uniquely undeterrable aggressor who would seek any opportunity to kill Americans virtually regardless of risk to himself or his country; (2) he was cooperating with al-Qa'ida and had even assisted in the September 11,2001, terrorist attacks against the United States; (3)he was close to acquiring nuclear weapons; and (4) he possessed chemical and biological weapons that could be used to devastating effect against American civilians at home or U.S. troops in the Middle East. Virtually none of the administration's claims held up, and the information needed todebunk nearly all of them was available both inside and outside the U.S. government before the war.3 Nevertheless, administration officials persistently repeated only the most extreme threat claims and suppressed contrary evidence.4

Most important, the marketplace of ideas failed to correct the administration's misrepresentations or hinder its ability to persuade the American public. The administration succeeded, despite the weakness of the evidence for its claims, in convincing a majority of the public that Iraq posed a threat so extreme and immediate that it could be dealt with only by preventive war. Overall, this policy debate resembles what Stephen Van Evera calls "non- evaluation": that is, a debate in which little real evaluation takes place because those in power ignore or suppress assessments from internal sources that might contradict their preferred policy, and use their ability to influence political and media agendas to focus public attention on their own arguments at the expense of attention to external criticisms.5

The question now is, why was this threat inflation so successful? The answer has both theoretical and policy implications. Although the Iraq debate is certainly not the first instance of threat inflation in the United States or other democracies, it matters whether this episode should be considered an uncommon exception to the rule that democratic marketplaces of ideas can usually restrain [End Page 6] policies based on dubious claims and rationales, or whether there is a risk of repeated equally severe failures, perhaps with much higher costs for U.S. national security.

Understanding the limits of threat inflation has become especially important because of the Bush administration's adoption of a preventive war doctrine,6 which substantially expands the potential, compared with previous U.S. grand strategies, for involving the United States in multiple military adventures. This in turn greatly increases the possible consequences if democratic processes and the marketplace of...