During the 1990s, neoconservatives were suffering a terrible case of ennui. Sure, the Clinton administration had expanded NATO and gotten the nation into several brushfire wars in remote locales, but nothing really exciting had happened. After nearly a decade of nothing to write about but peace and prosperity, David Brooks urged the nation to emulate Teddy Roosevelt, who “saw foreign policy activism and patriotism as remedies for cultural threats he perceived at home.”
And of course, hawkish think tanks convened conferences and commissioned books. The lodestar of neoconservative foreign policy thought in the 1990s was the edited volume Present Dangers, which warned of grave and imminent threats from Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, although for Kristol and Kagan, the real “‘present danger’ lies in America’s hesitancy.”
One guy who made only a few fleeting appearances in service of inflating the other threats? Osama bin Laden. As if to prove the old aphorism that if everything is important, nothing is important, the neoconservatives devoted time and energy to drawing up a laundry list of arguments for foreign policy activism and mentioned bin Laden only in passing.
They weren’t alone, of course: hardly anyone was sounding the klaxon about al Qaeda in the 1990s, and if they had, no one would have listened. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, whose inflated reputation is a mark of how bad our defense policy establishment is, famously remarked that
when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.
Of course, much of the story here, which wasn’t Gates’ point but should have been, is false positives. The U.S. defense establishment spends hundreds of billions defending against remote threats—and starting wars—using a logic that would literally bankrupt the country if it were applied across non-“national security” threats.
But just as the Republican foreign policy establishment warned of monsters under every bed while missing the burglar coming in the window, the GOP political establishment has created an array of bogeymen that work well for raising money from the GOP donor class, but don’t represent actual dangers, to the party or to the country. You can say almost anything in a fundraising letter from a conservative think tank or magazine and raise money on it, with little scrutiny of the claims therein. Glenn Beck is still a thing.
At the level of electoral politics, it’s just as bad. As Marco Rubio’s campaign implodes, for example, he is attempting to vacuum money from high-level donors, pulling for all he is worth on the argument that he’s the one man who can stop Donald Trump. This despite his having won only one state and still polling badly compared to Trump in his home state of Florida.
In foreign policy, and in electoral politics, there is no cost for threat inflation, and no cost for focusing on phantoms that distract from real dangers. The people giving money to campaigns, to think tanks, and to magazines, just have better things to do than catalog the falsifiable claims made by their suitors, let alone to follow up on them.
The problem with all this is that with incompetents at the operational level, and their benefactors occupied with business or other pursuits, occasionally you get a 9/11 and occasionally you get a Donald Trump. Unless the permanent campaign apparatus on the Right, the GOP foreign policy apparatus, or the donors that fund them see the light, the clown car will roll on, from election to election, foreign policy crisis to foreign policy crisis.