Peter Bergen: GOP convention's vision of "making America safe" is at odds with reality
This false national security narrative obscures our true vulnerabilities, he says
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
Watching the first night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was to enter a parallel universe where the United States is on the ropes; to hear it from the stage, it is a country in retreat with a weak military, besieged by foreign terrorists.
War hero and former U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell told the convention, “I got to spend time with Mr. Trump and I know he understands what it’s going to take to fix this. The only way we’re going to keep America safe is with an elite military.”
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa claimed, “Terrorists from ISIS are in every one of our 50 states.”
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, encapsulated the themes of the evening when he said, “It’s time to take back our country and make America safe again.”
This picture of a military that is starved for resources and of an unsafe country beset by ISIS terrorists is greatly at odds with reality.
First, on the military. The United States spends around $600 billion a year on its military, which is more than the next seven largest military budgets combined, including China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, India, Saudi Arabia and Japan.
The United States is hardly in retreat; it is conducting military operations of various kinds in seven Muslim countries, while U.S. Special Operations Forces are deployed in dozens of countries around the globe.
As a result of the damage inflicted by the U.S.-led coalition, ISIS has lost around half of its territory in Iraq and around 20% in Syria.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda Central, the group behind 9/11, is going the way of the dodo because of CIA drone strikes that have destroyed the upper and middle management of the organization. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, remains dead.
Monday night’s rhetoric aside, the reality is that no foreign terrorist organization has launched a successful attack in the United States since 9/11. Since then, on average, jihadist terrorists in the States have killed six Americans a year. That is too many, but these are tragedies, not national catastrophes as 9/11 was.
Instead of another 9/11, Americans have faced repeated and deadly “lone wolf” terror attacks that are hard to stop because overwhelmingly, American citizens – who are not in communication with other terrorists and therefore cannot be detected by conventional law enforcement or intelligence procedures – are the ones perpetrating them.
Americans are far safer from terrorism today than they were a decade and a half ago because of a whole raft of measures put in place by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations: a greatly expanded “no fly” list and other terrorism watch lists, effective integration and coordination of intelligence across the government, and vast resources devoted to counterterrorism programs.
Contra Sen. Ernst, there are not terrorists from ISIS in all 50 states. Instead, the FBI is investigating individuals in the 50 states – the majority of them American citizens – who are inspired by the terror group. Having something to fear from a fellow citizen who may have been reading or watching ISIS propaganda is quite a different phenomenon than what we saw in Paris in November, when a cell of ISIS-trained terrorists killed 130 in a coordinated series of attacks.
The truth is there is no evidence that there is a single terrorist sent by ISIS in the United States. Based on an examination of the public record, seven Americans have trained in Syria with militant groups and have returned to the States. None of them trained with ISIS, and six of those militants who returned are now in jail (one died in a suicide attack in Syria in 2014).
Just ahead of the convention, Trump told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that his plan to defeat ISIS was to “declare war” but send “very few troops.” Huh?
CNN Opinion commentators on the RNC
- Timothy Stanley: Republicans picked the wrong TrumpRaul A. Reyes: Trump's missed opportunityErrol Louis: Will Chris Christie get a second act?Peter Bergen: America the weak?Kayleigh McEnany: In a dark time, GOP offers positive visionPeggy Drexler: Melania, the good, the bad and the beautifulDavid Gergen: Imitating Nixon: Trump's big mistake?Paul Begala: A very Trump conventionMichael D'Antonio: A Trump family productionReince Priebus: From Cleveland to the White House
Unlike what we have heard from Trump or at the convention thus far, any serious discussion of what is making America unsafe should include proposals to bar subjects of FBI terrorism inquiries from legally acquiring semi-automatic weapons, such as the ones acquired by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan to kill 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 and by Omar Mateen before he killed 49 at an Orlando nightclub last month. Both Hasan and Mateen had been on the radar of the FBI for their militant views, yet both legally purchased the weapons they used to carry out their massacres.
Of course, we won’t be hearing discussions of any such sensible proposals coming out of the Republican convention despite all the posturing about making America safe. In Cleveland, a false narrative about how unsafe Americans are is compounded by a lack of ideas about how to deal with the real issues.
Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”