There has been a trend in recent years that seems to the author to be metastasizing, one in which people view current threats, particularly the asymmetric ones, in a binary, black-and-white sort of way. Either a threat is an existential one, that is going to leave the U.S. in complete wreckage, or it is nothing. Examples of the two extremes would be the likes of retired General Thomas McInerney on the “existential threat side,” and Michael Moore on the “there is no threat” side. Every day there seems to be a new reason why ISIS/Daash is going to bring the U.S. to its knees, or at least kill a sizable fraction of the population if something isn’t done.

Meanwhile, most of the “there is no threat” assurances seem to be coming from the conspiracy theorists who now believe that the U.S. and Israel orchestrated the whole thing to drag the U.S. into another war. The political affiliation of the conspiracy theorists has changed to mirror the change in the political occupation of the White House, but the gist is the same.

This model is not only profoundly ignorant in a world dominated more and more by asymmetric, multi-spectrum warfare, it is downright dangerous, especially when it has come to dominate the electorate’s perception and thus, to some extent, the decision-making of politicians who are pandering to that electorate.

A great deal of this increasingly noisy and over-the-top pontificating has to do more with political factionalism than with the actual threats being discussed. For the most part, in recent years, this has generally broken down into the Republicans saying the Democrats aren’t doing enough to protect the country, the Democrats saying that any U.S. intervention (that isn’t being run by a “compassionate” Democrat) is being conducted by evil imperialist capitalists, and the Libertarians saying that all of the above are trying to engineer wars to take away individual freedoms. All are a mix of truths, half-truths, and outright fabrication.

The majority of the punditry appears to be calculated to stir up targeted voter groups rather than to actually inform the citizenry. As a result, the perception of the threat environment has gotten skewed completely away from reality.

Proxy, irregular war has emerged as the primary form of warmaking in the post-1991 world. It is generally referred to as 4th-generation warfare. It is multi-spectrum, i.e. it extends to areas not necessarily traditionally connected to warfare. It uses military, criminal, social, economic, and political means to achieve the aims of the belligerent. The use of terrorism, economic warfare, cyber-warfare, and mercenary/proxy forces is not only cheaper, it removes many military options from the table for major powers which are unaccustomed to such skullduggery. This is why it really began to come into its own during the Cold War, when direct confrontation meant the imminent threat of nuclear war.

While many of its applications might be new, in many ways this form of warfare is very old. The application of political, social, and economic spheres to warfare is described in the Six Secret Teachings of T’ai Kung, China’s first famous general. The Six Secret Teachings are believed to date to the 11th century BCE.

Al-Qaeda: Why we Fight

Read Next: Al-Qaeda: Why we Fight

4th-generation warfare is not given to mass destruction. While certainly violent, it is, in many ways, more of a chess match. It is leveraging violence, terror, economics, and information to force the enemy to do what is desired. Most times, brute force applications are easily dodged or turned into an information weapon against those applying them. Failure to recognize this tends to lead to repeating mistakes at least. At worst, it plays into the enemy’s hands. Use too much force, and the enemy has a propaganda weapon that can remove allies. Don’t use enough, or refuse to recognize that there is a threat at all, and the enemy can do what they will.

Contrary to the political posturing going on in the pundit-sphere, a threat does not have to be existential in order to be a threat. Irregular threats rarely are. They leverage violence and terror to sway people they can never directly threaten. This does not mean that letting them be is a good idea; it only means that the threat has to be recognized for what it is, and dealt with accordingly.

(Featured Image Courtesy: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)