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The perfect word for Obama's ISIS threat inflation: "threatiness"

President Obama talks ISIS.
President Obama talks ISIS.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Analysts can and do disagree about how much of a threat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses to Americans and to the United States. On the one hand, it has already gleefully murdered two Americans and controls a vast swath of territory from which is could plan and potentially launch attacks; on the other hand, the group is pretty focused on its multi-front war in the Middle East and has little obvious capability for a trans-continental operation.

One thing that terrorism analysts would probably agree on, though, is that the Obama administration has played things a bit fast and loose in publicly asserting ISIS's purported threat, offering a combination of exaggerations and vague warnings. Writing in Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks has brilliantly termed this "threatiness." As in, ISIS may or may not be a real threat, but there is a definite sense of threatiness that the Obama administration is promoting.

Here is Brooks defining threatiness, in a satirical speech by Obama:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: My fellow Americans, the Middle East today is frighteningly full of threatiness.

What, you ask, is threatiness? As my good friend Mr. Stephen Colbert will surely understand, threatiness is to threat as truthiness is to truth. By this, I mean that sometimes we cannot articulate why something is a threat, or offer evidence, but we still think it just feels, you know, threaty. We know it in our gut. And let me be clear: when there is enough threatiness floating around, America must take action.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been the leading edge of promoting this threatiness. He said there were "over 100 US citizens" fighting for ISIS, a number the Pentagon quickly said was closer to a dozen. He also called ISIS "an imminent threat to every interest we have ... beyond anything we've seen," which seems awfully unlikely, given that the vast majority of US interests are not located in or around the Sunnis regions of Syria and Iraq.

Brooks also calls out Obama's weirdly squishy language about ISIS that is consistently "both alarming and non-specific," could in hypothetical threats and potential future developments.

But Brooks really drove this home in highlighting the threatiness of Khorasan, a group of al-Qaeda officers operating in Syria that the administration brought to America's attention just a few conspicuous days before launching strikes against it. The administration's argument is basically that "it is entirely possible this sinister and mysterious organization poses even more imminent threatiness than the Islamic State," Brooks writes, even though it has presented no real evidence and official statements have said it "potentially" and "may" be an ISIS-level threat.

There are two ways to interpret the threatiness of the Obama administration's case for Syria strikes. The sympathetic interpretation is that there is in fact a good case for intervening against ISIS to curb the danger it poses, but that this danger is difficult to sell politically, because it is too indirect, abstract, and/or complex for a prime time speech. For example, the administration may believe that ISIS is destabilizing an already unstable region in a way that, if left unchecked, really would lead to non-exaggerated threats to the US, not unlike what happened when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. And so, for the sake of political expedience, Obama is using the more palatable language of threatiness, even though that language is at least partly bullshit. That's the sympathetic interpretation.

The unsympathetic interpretation is that the Obama administration felt pressured into strikes that it now has to justify, or it has no strategy and is trying to cover that up, or it earnestly believes its overstated language.

In either case, threatiness is an excellent coinage for what's happening, and a phenomenon with which Americans have unfortunately become all too familiar.

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