Micah Zenko

Forget ‘Better Off’

Are you safer than you were four years ago?

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

In his closing statement of the final presidential debate in October 1980, Ronald Reagan told prospective voters that before heading to the polls: "It might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?" This month, Republicans borrowed this question from the Great Communicator as a litmus test for President Barack Obama’s term in office. In a recent poll, a slight plurality of prospective voters said they were not better off now than in 2008.

However, Republicans shied away from the other query Reagan raised in 1980: "Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?" This omission reflected two realities facing the Republican presidential candidate. First, Obama consistently outpolls Mitt Romney by 6 to 10 percentage points when asked who would be better at "protecting the country," who could be "a good commander in chief," and who would be better at "handling foreign policy." Second, only 4 percent of Americans polled believe that "foreign affairs," which includes wars, terrorism, immigration, and other subjects, is the most important issue facing the United States — the lowest percentage since Obama entered office.

Despite the American public’s puzzling disinterest in foreign policy and national security, Reagan’s second question is worth a closer look. Both political parties paint starkly different pictures. Romney told a Memorial Day commemoration in San Diego: "I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today. It’s not." Meanwhile, Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council (NSC), said, "The U.S. is absolutely safer now than four years ago." This Sept. 11, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "I think the bottom-line implication is that America is safer."

It is unlikely that Obama’s signature foreign-policy successes — authorizing the raid to kill Osama bin Laden and providing the essential military and intelligence capabilities that led to the downfall of Muammar al-Qaddafi — singlehandedly made the United States safer. By 2011, bin Laden played a minor role in core al Qaeda operations, which had been diminished by relentless CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. At the same time, until the Libyan crisis imploded, Qaddafi was viewed by U.S. officials as a shining star for his cooperation on terrorism matters. According to the State Department‘s "Country Reports on Terrorism 2010," released in August 2011: "The Libyan government continued to demonstrate a strong and active commitment to combating terrorist organizations and violent extremism through bilateral and regional counterterrorism and security cooperation." It is plain that the current Libyan government is — so far — either unable or unwilling to take on terrorist organizations with the same intensity and brutality as Qaddafi.

The reality is that, across a range of criteria, Americans are indeed safer and more secure than four years ago. However, the primary reasons predate Obama and instead reflect long-term social, economic, and demographic trends. Consider just a few indicators from 2008, the year before Obama entered office and the latest year for which data is available.

War. The number of active intra- and interstate "armed conflicts" (having over 25 battle-related deaths) has remained constant since 2008 at 37. Six conflicts reached the intensity of "war" (over 1,000 deaths) in the past year, as Libya and Yemen joined the list. The number of armed conflicts in which the United States is directly involved increased in 2011 due to U.S. military personnel or assets involved in hostilities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. However, the number of active-duty service-member deaths (including in war, from accidents, or self-inflicted) remained relatively constant between 2008 and 2010 (1,440 and 1,485).

Freedom. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed in April 2003: "Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." Nevertheless, over time, democracies tend to have healthier and better-educated citizens, almost never go to war with other democracies, and are less likely to fight wars than non-democracies. There has been little change on this indicator since 2008, as the outcomes of the Arab Spring are far from settled. According to Freedom House, there were 119 electoral democracies in 2008 and 42 autocracies. In 2011, there were 117 and 48, respectively.

Terrorism. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, while 33 U.S. citizens died from terrorism in 2008, that number decreased to 17 in 2011 (15 in Afghanistan, one in Iraq, and one in Jerusalem). This reduced threat is reflected in the global downward trend of deaths due to terrorism, with 15,732 fatalities in 2008 and 12,533 fatalities in 2011, largely as a result of the increased attention and enforcement efforts in Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, terrorist deaths increased by almost 60 percent in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011.

Nuclear weapons. The number of global nuclear weapons declined from about 23,360 in 2009 to 19,000 in 2012. At the same time, global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) decreased from 1,670 tons to 1,440 tons between 2008 and 2011, while stockpiles of separated plutonium remained constant at 500 tons. However, this good news is tempered by the growth in India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals, from 60 to 70 in India to 80 to 100, and from 60 in Pakistan to 90 to 110. Obama reportedly told his staff that loose Pakistani nuclear weapons "was his biggest single national security concern." Moreover, North Korea allegedly built a uranium-enrichment facility estimated to be capable of producing a bomb’s worth of HEU per year, and U.S. officials have warned there are other clandestine enrichment sites.

Nuclear security. Building on the strong records of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama declared in April 2009 that his greatest foreign-policy priority was to "secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years." Obama administration officials acknowledge that they will fall short of this lofty goal; in March, the Government Accountability Office reported, "NSC officials did not consider the 4-year time frame to be a hard and fast deadline." Nevertheless, important reductions in weapons-capable fissile material were sustained under Obama’s watch, including the removal of all HEU from Mexico, Chile, Serbia, Romania, Taiwan, and Turkey. While there were 53 countries with at least 1 kilogram of weapons-usable fissile material in 2005, today there are 34.

Life expectancy. Even before the supposed benefits of Obamacare have been phased in, U.S. life expectancy has continued to increase, from 78.0 years in 2008 to 78.49 years in 2011. In contrast, the average global life span is 69.6 years. Health metrics such as child mortality decreased slightly from a rate of 7.7 per 100,000 in 2008 to 7.5 in 2010, though obesity rates expanded from 33.7 percent in 2008, to 35.7 percent in 2010. Two weeks ago, first lady Michelle Obama declared that obesity was "absolutely" a national security threat to the United States.

Daily life. Although this is a foreign-policy column, it is worth noting that this is the safest time in history to live in the United States. The FBI’s (Preliminary Annual) Uniform Crime Report for 2011 shows continued decline in nearly all major crime categories — including violent crime, motor vehicle theft, and arson — with only a slight 0.3 percent increase in burglary. Moreover, getting from point A to point B has never been safer. Comparing 2008 to the most recent equivalent data, fewer Americans are dying in motor vehicles, in airplanes, as pedestrians from motor vehicles, or on bicycles.

Both Obama and Romney pepper their stump speeches with explicit and implicit invocations of America as an "exceptional nation." Yet if recent presidents have taught us anything, it is that presidential foreign-policy choices either result in big, intractable catastrophes (see Iraq) or simply maintain an even keel. The first point of wisdom in analyzing U.S. foreign policy is to recognize that very little of what happens on the other 91.77 percent of the Earth’s surface has anything to do with the United States. The second is that the ability of any U.S. president to shape, compel, or direct foreign-policy events is both limited and diminishing. On Sept. 24, Romney told an audience in Pueblo, Colorado, that the anti-Western protests "represent events that are spinning out of the kind of influence we’d like to have. We’re at the mercy of events rather than shaping the events in the Middle East." The era of American mastery in world affairs was always a myth and has now all but collapsed. All largely positive developments outlined above reflect the complex, interconnected decisions of billions of people. So far, so good.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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