Obama says terrorist networks remain the greatest threat to the United States. “We have to remain vigilant,” he warned recently. But global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.
Beyond the United States, global statistics point undeniably toward progress in achieving greater peace and stability. There are fewer wars now than at any time in decades. The number of people killed as a result of armed violence worldwide is plunging as well — down to about 526,000 in 2011 from about 740,000 in 2008, according to the United Nations.
The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze. “The world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic,” Romney said this summer in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nevada. Obama, though less apocalyptic than his Republican challenger, routinely talks about the critical need for “tested and proven” leadership in a “world of new threats and new challenges.”
When it comes to foreign policy, the incentives on the campaign trail run toward ruin: Aspirants to public office praise the troops and preach the possibility of global doom.
That makes sense in the looking-glass world of campaigning. A candidate who talks about the declining threat to Americans can quickly appear foolish, weak or out of touch if there is an attack on the homeland or an unexpected setback abroad. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama proudly declared that “al-Qaeda is on the path to defeat.” Five days later, on the anniversary of 9/11, an attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi left four Americans dead, including the ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.
Stevens’s death at the hands of a possible al-Qaeda affiliate forced the president to temper predictions of the group’s demise. More recently, he has even accused Romney of underestimating the threat posed by the terrorist group. “I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda’s a threat because a few months ago, when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia — not al-Qaeda,” Obama chided Romney at the last presidential debate.
In recent weeks, Romney has shifted his focus to the Iranian nuclear program. “Iran is the greatest national security threat we face,” he said during the final debate.
The news media, meanwhile, almost never take candidates to task for incorrect predictions of disaster. “The political penalty for being wrong about the threat or underestimating it is much more severe than the penalty for overstating it,” notes Peter Feaver, who was a senior official on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.