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The GOP debate described a terrifying world that doesn't actually exist

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Ted Cruz ended his performance at Thursday's night's debate, at which he was one of the clear winners, by pitching not a policy but an action movie: 13 Hours — Michael Bay's Hollywood retelling of the real-life 2012 Benghazi attacks.

13 Hours. Tomorrow morning, a new movie will debut about the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi and the politicians that abandoned them.

Cruz is correct that the movie portrays politicians as "abandoning" the Americans in Benghazi. But in reality, that is a conspiracy theory that has been roundly debunked.

This moment, Cruz citing a fictitious movie as truth, was of a piece with the debate as a whole. In it, much of conversation about world affairs existed in a make-believe world, and a terrifying one at that, in which the very existence of America is in perilous danger. In other words, it wasn't just Ted Cruz who was living in a fiction last night — it was the entire stage.

ISIS poses an existential threat ... except it doesn't

Kurdish soldiers after seizing the strategic Sinjar town from ISIS.
(John Moore/Getty Images)

A major theme of last night's debate was that ISIS, and "radical Islamic terrorists" in general, are not merely dangerous but actually pose a fundamental threat to America. When moderator Maria Bartiromo asked Marco Rubio about President Obama's claim that ISIS wasn't a threat to America's existence, Rubio framed the issue in apocalyptic terms:

There is a war against ISIS, not just against ISIS but against radical jihadist terrorists. That is a war they win or we win.

It's not totally clear what Rubio means about ISIS winning the war against America. Is he alluding to ISIS's plan to establish a global caliphate? Does he think the strongest military in history is on the verge of crumbling before a few thousand fighters based half a world away?

"The simple fact," Jeb Bush said, "is the world has been torn asunder," citing ISIS as an example:

The president talks about [ISIS] being a JV team. They form a caliphate the size of Indiana with 35 or 40 thousand battle-tested terrorists. He is missing the point. America's leadership in the world is required for peace and stability.

Even Bartiromo, the moderator, got in on it. "We know that recent global events have many people worried," she said. "ISIS is getting stronger."

In reality, ISIS is getting weaker; for example, it has lost large chunks of its territory, especially in Iraq. There is just no evidence that the group is gaining strength.

Still, it is of course true that ISIS's threat is real, and Americans are right to worry. But the candidates, and, indeed, the moderator, exaggerated that threat so far beyond reality it is hardly recognizable. The San Bernardino attacks, for example, killed 14 Americans — which is a real danger that needs to be taken seriously, but not exactly the existential threat or imminent American defeat that the candidates portrayed.

It's worth, just for a bit of perspective, comparing terrorism deaths in the United States with firearm deaths, a threat that the Republican candidates generally downplay:

Guns in the US kill more people than terrorism (Javier Zarracina)

Again, this by no means obviates the real threat from terrorism generally or ISIS specifically, but it makes the rhetoric on the GOP stage seem a bit hysterical.

For even more perspective: The number of Americans killed per year by terrorism is the same as the number crushed to death by their own furniture. Obviously one key difference here is that terrorist groups would like to kill many more Americans, and are surely trying to accomplish just that, whereas presumably your sofa is not plotting any major attacks. But the point is that the risk terrorism poses to everyday American lives is not where you might have thought it was from this debate.

America just doesn't have much of a domestic terrorism problem. Incidents like the shootings in San Bernardino are vanishingly rare, as violent extremist groups have very few adherents here. US intelligence operations make it very difficult for foreign terrorist groups to bring operatives into the US and plan an attack.

Another reason for this is that the United States spends billions of dollars every year to weaken terrorist groups. Some of those efforts are working, at least against ISIS: The group has lost something like 25 percent of its territory from its 2014 peak, and continues to lose ground as US airstrikes support local Iraqi and Syrian forces clearing out ISIS on the ground.

Iran is humiliating America ... except it isn't

riverine command boat navy bahrain
US sailors on a riverine command boat in Bahrain, the type of ship that Iran detained and then released. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran, and its detention of 10 American sailors on Tuesday, was also a major item in the GOP debate. Each candidate discussed it as proof that America under Obama was being humiliated, and that Iran was taking advantage of America's profound weakness. Donald Trump, of course, blamed the Iran nuclear deal:

They were watching the humiliation of our young 10 sailors, sitting on the floor with their knees in a begging position, their hands up, and Iranian wiseguys having guns to their heads. It was a terrible sight. A terrible sight. And the only reason we got them back is because we owed them with a stupid deal, $150 billion. If I'm president, there won't be stupid deals anymore.

Chris Christie blamed the whole thing on funding cuts to the military, which is odd given that the US military remains many times more powerful than Iran's:

We are not the world's policeman but we need to stand up and be ready. The problem, Maria, is the military is not ready either. We need to rebuild the military. This president let it diminish to a point where tin pot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships. It is disgraceful.

There are many other examples, all making the same point.

But as my colleague Max Fisher explains, this is a bizarre reading of the Iran incident. In actuality, the American sailors wandered or drifted (it's still not clear) into Iranian waters without warning, where Iran picked them up. They were returned in about a day after direct negotiations between the US and Iran. Though Iran published embarrassing photos of the Americans being detained, the effect of this was mostly wounded pride, and in all what could have been a dangerous incident was resolved quickly and peacefully.

"I would describe this as not outside of the norm," Robert Farley, a professor of international relations at the University of Kentucky, told me about the handling of the Iran-sailor situation. "Polite powers manage to resolve these kinds of issues without actually arresting and seizing and pointing guns at each other."

This wasn't an example of "American weakness"; it was an example of diplomacy managing and defusing a bad situation.

American power is collapsing ... except it isn't

us training iraq soldier sentences
An American trainer works with an Iraqi soldier in April.
John Moore/Getty Images

Another common argument in the debate was that America's global position is collapsing and the US military's competence is in free fall. Here's Marco Rubio on America's precipitous decline:

Barack Obama does not believe that America is a great global power. Barack Obama believes America is an arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size. That is how you get a foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran and we betray our allies like Israel and we gut our military and we go around the world like he has done on ten separate occasions and apologized for America.

Jeb Bush sees American enemies growing stronger and more terrifying by the day:

China, Russia [are] advancing their agenda at warp speed. And we pull back. As president of the united States I will be a commander-in-chief that have the back of the military. We will rebuild the military to make sure it is a solid force. Not to be the world's policeman to make sure in peaceful world people know that the United States is there to take care of our own national interests and take care of our allies.

Ben Carson warned about an impending disaster of an EMP attack (something that exists only in movies) as posing, despite being made-up, an "existential threat":

Now we have dirty bombs and we have cyber attacks and we have people who will be attacking our electrical grid. And you know, we have a whole variety of things that they can do and they can do these things simultaneously. And we have enemies who are obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exoatmosphere and destroy our electric grid. So think about a scenario like that. They explode the bomb; we have electromagnetic pulse...

He needs to recognize that those kinds of things are in fact an existential threat to us, but here's the real key. We have the world's best military, even though he has done everything he can to diminish it. And the fact of the matter is, if we give them a mission and we don't tie their hands behind their back they can get it accomplished.

It is true that spending cuts, imposed under the so-called sequester, have hurt the military somewhat, but it is still by far the best-funded and most powerful military on Earth. Consider a few facts:

  • The US spends more on defense than the next nine countries combined.
  • America has partners or allies on every populated continent on Earth, and faces no opposing superpower as it did during the Cold War.
  • America's most significant rival, China, shows zero interest in fighting a war with the United States.
  • Russia is bogged down in an expensive and increasingly unwinnable quagmire in Ukraine. Its bombing campaign in Syria has failed to meaningfully change the reality on the ground.
  • And, more broadly, the tide of war is on the decline. While the wars in places like Syria are certainly terrible, we're living through one of the most peaceful times in human history:
battle deaths chart

(Joe Posner/Vox)

Given what actual evidence tells us about the world, there's basically no way to sugarcoat it: The Republican debate's view of the world is as much a work of fiction as Michael Bay's Benghazi movie.