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What was missing from the GOP debate

CNN hosted the last Republican presidential debate of 2015 Tuesday night.Getty Images


Here's a sampling of the first sentences uttered at the GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas Tuesday night:

Chris Christie: "America has been betrayed."

Carly Fiorina: "Like all of you I'm angry."

Jeb Bush: "Our freedom is under attack."

Ted Cruz: "America is at war."

Ben Carson: "Our country since its inception has been at war."

From these opening salvos the evening's martial tone was set, as each GOP candidate tried to outdo each other in depicting the evils of ISIS, magnifying the threat of terrorism, and pledging to take every possible step — including violations of international law — to keep America safe. In the dystopian worldview of the nine people trying to be the Republican candidate, we're at war with a fearsome enemy, the security of our nation dangles on the knife's edge, and President Obama is completely incapable of dealing with the issue, in large measure because he won't use the words "radical Islam."

Marco Rubio showed American resilience by arguing that if the United States were to let in 10,000 refugees and just one was an "ISIS killer" that would be a "serious" security threat. Bush raised the specter of "un-American activities" and said that Obama has created "the most unstable situation we've had since the World War II era" — a war that killed an estimated 70 million people. Trump said he would be "open to closing areas [of the Internet] where we are at war with somebody," because he doesn't "want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet." In the process, he demonstrated his keen grasp of both the Constitution and information technology.


John Kasich said it was time "that we punched the Russians in the nose." Christie went a step further and said "we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots" if they violated a no-fly zone in Syria to which Rand Paul accurately responded, "If you're in favor of World War III, you have your candidate." Paul is often the sole voice of marginal sanity in this group, but he had his moments like when he said the greatest threat to our national security is America's debt. Carly Fiorina provided an interesting twist on diplomacy by saying that if we want China to cooperate with the United States, "we must first actually retaliate against their cyberattacks so they know we're serious."


Both Cruz and Trump openly contemplated committing war crimes in Syria and Iraq in order to defeat ISIS. Although so too did one of the moderators, Hugh Hewitt, who asked Ben Carson, "Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands?" Trump talked about taking unconstitutional measures even though he told reporters in the post-debate spin room, "I'm big, big on the Bill of Rights."

To listen to these candidates — and the inane questions asked by CNN's moderators — is to believe that terrorism is an existential danger to the United States (it's not); that terrorists threaten our safety (they don't); that the world is a viper's nest of enemies, security threats, and potential rivals (it isn't).

Here's what you didn't hear last night. More Americans are killed by falling televisions than terrorists. ISIS has not mounted a single verifiable attack on US soil. Many more Americans are killed in a single day by guns than have been killed by terrorists in the past several years.


Here's what else you didn't hear. America is by far the most powerful country in the world — militarily, economically, and diplomatically. We spend more on our military than the next seven countries combined — five of which are our allies. We face no serious military threat and no rival to our position as global hegemon. We have dozens of global allies and an international system that we largely created — one that also happens to be closely aligned with our national security interests.

You also didn't hear that the world today has fewer wars, more democracies, greater economic prosperity, higher living standards, and longer life expectancy than pretty much any point in human history. More young people go to school, more people have access to health care, and fewer people are mired in poverty.

None of that came up last night in the debate, in large measure because practically every question from CNN's moderators dealt with ISIS, terrorism, or some other hyped-up threat to the United States. Every international issue was framed as something that puts our security at risk, with almost no talk about partners, allies, even opportunities for expanding America's interests.

Indeed, nearly 200 nations just signed on to one of the most monumental global treaties in the history of the species — an international pact to limit the impact of climate change. No one at CNN thought it necessary or worthwhile to ask about it.


To be sure, a question on the treaty could not have been more appropriate since the Republican Party is the only major political party in the developed world that fundamentally rejects the science of climate change. How CNN could host a two-hour debate on international affairs and not ask about this achievement is the single best indication of how distorted and childish our foreign policy debates have become — uniquely focused on threats that don't exist and ignoring evidence of human progress.

At one point, Christie noted, "We have people across this country who are scared to death." Is it any wonder why?

Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.