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Michael A. Cohen

Coats does his job: scaring people

Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, on Jan. 29.Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg

LAST WEEK Dan Coats performed what has become an annual Washington tradition: scaring the hell out of Americans.

Coats is the director of national intelligence, or DNI. Each year the director is required to provide Congress with an assessment of the threats facing the United States.

Like every DNI before him (Democrat and Republican), Coats didn’t describe threats to the United States — he inflated them.

America faces “a toxic mix of strategic competitors, regional powers, weak or failed states, and non-state actors using a variety of tools in overt and subtle ways to achieve their goals,” said Coats.


Little of this is true. No country poses a true military danger to the American homeland. No failed state is able to strike the United States. Non-state actors are likely to carry out the same number of major terrorist attacks in the United States that non-state actors have carried out in the 17 years since 9/11: none.

According to Coats, China is focused on a “long-term strategy” of achieving “global superiority.”

What’s the evidence for this dubious argument? China is “restrict(ing) the personal freedoms of its citizens” and touting China’s political model as an “implicit alternative to democratic values and institutions.”

In fact, “China has not been actively seeking to export its model,” M. Taylor Fravel, a China security expert at MIT, told me. Its military remains largely focused on the Far East, not on achieving global superiority.

Coats testified that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, because the country’s leaders view them “as critical to regime survival.”

This runs counter to what President Trump has said, but it also suggests that a North Korean regime focused on self-defense and not offensive actions probably isn’t much of a threat to the United States.


“Iran,” said Coats, “will continue pursuing regional ambitions and improved military capabilities, even while its own economy is weakening by the day.”

This may be true, but again highlights the point that Iran’s nefarious aspirations are highly constrained, especially considering that Coats also confirmed that Tehran is adhering to the nuclear deal that President Trump pulled out of.

“Russia will continue to wage its information war against democracies and to use social media to attempt to divide our societies,” claimed Coats. Of this there is little doubt. But, truth be told, the best way to combat these low-tech efforts would be having a president who is not compromised by Russia.

What was missing from Coats’s testimony (besides climate change, which is undoubtedly the most serious global challenge facing the United States) is context. None of the countries mentioned by Coats has the resources or capabilities to achieve the scary goals that he described. All are dealing with serious economic issues as well as diplomatic and regional isolation, and few of them have any international support.

Coats’s description of the world as a virtual viper’s nest of dangers also ignores the most important story in international affairs: the approximately two-decade-long decrease in global instability and the improvement in the human experience.

People around the world are living longer lives and have better access to health care and clean water. Fewer kids are going to bed hungry, and more are attending school. The global poverty rate has fallen from near 40 percent three decades ago to less than 10 percent.


While democracy is on its heels in far too many places, the world is still far freer than it was a quarter century ago.

This is what makes the whole exercise of a threat assessment so distorting. America faces few serious dangers from outside its borders. And at a time when life expectancy in America has fallen for three straight years, when more than 70,000 of our fellow citizens died from drug overdoses in 2017 and close to 40,000 were killed by guns, when 4 in 10 Americans are considered obese, and more American children live in poverty than children in nearly any other developed country, it’s hard to argue that the real danger isn’t coming from inside the house.

For all the constant fearmongering of America’s foreign policy elite, the greatest long-term danger to our quality of life, economic competitiveness, and, yes, national security is the collective inattention to the true crises happening all around us.

Rather than looking around the world in search of what John Quincy Adams once called “monsters to destroy,” Americans would be much better off assessing and tackling the threats we face at home.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.