A Terrorized Foreign Policy

Arguing that the Middle East is not nearly as important to US interests as we’re led to believe, Justin Logan deconstructs the notion that we focus so heavily on the region because of terrorism:

This explanation for why the Middle East supposedly matters is peculiar, in that the basic contours of U.S. policy in the region predate 9/11. It is tough to think that a concern that emerged after a policy began explains the policy. But there is no evidence that terrorism is a threat that warrants an effort to micromanage the Middle East. The chance of an American being killed by terrorism outside a war zone from 1970-2012 was roughly one in 4,000,000. By any conventional risk analysis, this is an extraordinarily low risk. Perhaps this is why, as early as 2002, smart risk analysts were asking questions about counterterrorism policy such as “How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?”

The amount we’re paying now to fight terrorism—roughly $100 billion per year—is simply crazy.

If someone ran a hedge fund assessing risk the way the U.S. government has responded to terrorism, it would not be long for the world. Indeed, it is difficult to identify how U.S. policy across the region—with the possible exception of some drone strikes and special operations raids—have reduced the extremely low probability of another major terrorist attack. If anything, our policies may have increased them.

But terrorism, as Shana Gadarian’s research confirms, drives Americans toward more hawkish policy positions, particularly when we see images of it on TV:

Political and media observers, particularly on the left, worry that media coverage of the Islamic State is terrifying Americans and persuading them to support foreign policies and candidates that they would otherwise not support. Political science suggests that their fears are warranted. My own research – conducted in the wake of 9/11 – provides strong evidence that both the amount and tone of media coverage of terrorism can significantly influence foreign policy attitudes. Americans who were already worried about future terrorism after 9/11, were more likely to support the use of military force abroad and increased spending on security at home after seeing news stories about terrorism with images like the World Trade Center on fire.