As US citizens debate whether they are better off now than they were four years ago, there is a similar question with a somewhat easier answer: Are people in the US safer now than they were when US President Barack Obama took office? By most measures, the answer is yes.
More than a decade after terrorists slammed planes into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside, people in the US have stopped fretting daily about a possible attack or stockpiling duct tape and water. Getting through airport security has become a routine irritation, not a grim foreboding.
While the threat of a terrorist attack has not disappeared, the combined military, intelligence, diplomatic and financial efforts to hobble al-Qaeda and its affiliates have escalated over the past four years and paid off. Terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden, are dead and their networks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia disrupted.
In some cases, US President Barack Obama’s White House simply continued or intensified programs and policies begun by the Republican administration of former US president George W. Bush, but Obama pursued a more aggressive drone campaign to target terrorist leaders, broadening efforts to help at-risk nations bolster their own defenses and put in place plans to end the war in Iraq and bring troops out of Afghanistan.
As a result, terrorism worries have taken a back seat to the nation’s economic woes.
Unlike previous elections, national security is not a big campaign issue this year.
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney made no mention of terrorism or war during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Although public opposition to the war in Afghanistan has grown, it is not a top dinner table topic for most people in the US.
“I would have said four years ago that the al-Qaeda movement was emerging as a bigger problem, especially with the emergence of affiliates in places like Yemen and with the spike in homegrown attacks,” said Phil Mudd, a counterterrorism official at the CIA and FBI during the Bush and Obama administrations. “I would say today that al-Qaedaism is on the decline ... the number of places where people want to come after us has declined in the past four years.”
Mudd, now a research fellow at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, said that while militants in other countries may still be causing problems in their own areas, they are less likely to “be sitting there saying how do we get to Los Angeles, and that’s a big change.”
Still, other international dangers remain. Ongoing efforts to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear capabilities have not worked. As Israel’s worries about the nuclear threat grow, the possibility of US involvement in an Israeli strike against Iran has become a front-burner issue.
Defense officials are wary of China’s military growth, and US intelligence agencies have accused Beijing of stealing US high-tech data through computer-based attacks. US officials and security experts are increasingly warning that the US is highly vulnerable to cyberattacks, including one that could take down the electric grid, financial networks or energy plants.
Republicans say Obama has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear program, saying that it could spark an arms race across the Middle East.