The American Legion Magazine
May 2006
By Alan W. Dowd 

“The wars of 9/11,” as Simon Serfaty of Center for Security and International Studies concluded just weeks after the attacks that maimed Manhattan and scarred the Pentagon, “will be a decisive test of America’s credibility as a durable power.” In other words, he recognized that it wasn’t September 11 alone, horrible as it was, that would test America, but also the path America would choose in response to September 11.

That path has led American troops into Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics, to the borderlands of Syria and Iran, to the Philippines and Djibouti, and all the way to Timbuktu (literally)—and of course, into Iraq. Now, amid these wars of 9/11, America faces perhaps its sternest test here at home. 

That’s because, even though the US military wins every engagement in Iraq, the war effort is steadily losing the one thing that matters most: the support of the American people. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long before the British carved out the borders of Iraq, “Among democratic nations, the private soldiers remain most like civilians; upon them, the habits of the nation have the firmest hold and public opinion has the most influence.”  

In other words, polls do matter, especially in a time of war. And to the extent that polls reflect public attitudes about what promises to be a long, hard war on terrorism, the polls have been worrisome since late 2003.  

For instance, polls taken just 20 months after the liberation of Iraq showed that only 47 percent of Americans identified the war in Iraq as part of the wider war on terror. And that number is falling. With US troops dying at a steady and somber rate of two per day, 60 percent of Americans say Iraq is not worth the costs. With more than 2,100 Americans killed in Iraq, more than half of the public supports a rapid withdrawal from Iraq.[1] And these numbers are growing.

Yet as Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute has found in a massive survey of post-9/11 polling data, more than eight in ten Americans said in the autumn of 2001 they would support military action against any nation found to be aiding terrorists. Almost as many Americans—77 percent—said in early 2003 that Iraq was part of the war on terror. Bowman has also unearthed a CNN poll that asked Americans just days after 9/11 if they would support military action even if it meant 5,000 troops would be killed. In a sign of our grim, if ephemeral, determination, 76 percent said yes.[2]

In short, although the doomsayers and bad-news media say otherwise, there was a time when the American people recognized that it would take time to wage the wars of 9/11. There was even a time when the American people recognized that 9/11 and Iraq were linked, though not in the manner the war critics have come to ridicule. 

They are linked because we changed
For good or ill, September 11 changed the very DNA of US national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes in Surprise, Security and the American Experience, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible? One by one, the Bush administration answered those questions. And the answer to each was “no,” which is why September 11 led first to Afghanistan and then to Baghdad.

This is perhaps the most fundamental way that September 11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not plan or hatch the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Hitler at Munich at once had nothing and everything to do with how America responded to Stalin and his successors in Berlin, Korea, Cuba and Afghanistan.   

President Bush wasn’t the only one to conclude that 9/11 had changed the rules of the game. As Sen. John Kerry asked in 2002, “Can we afford to ignore the possibility that Saddam Hussein might accidentally, as well as purposely, allow those weapons to slide off to one group or other in a region where weapons are the currency of trade?”   

Note what was taken for granted in his statement—that Saddam Hussein possessed “those weapons,” the kind that killed entire villages in northern Iraq, the kind that deformed generations of Kurds, the kind he hid from the UN throughout the 1990s, the kind that can be used to blackmail or checkmate America. “Those weapons” were the ones that even Jacques Chirac and Hans Blix believed Saddam Hussein possessed. “Those weapons” were then, and remain today, the seed of nightmares. 

Yet “those weapons” were not the only reason Washington decided to finish the war Saddam began in 1990. In fact, in the Iraq war resolution of 2002, a sizable majority in Congress noted that it had been US policy since 1998 “to support efforts to remove from power the current Iraqi regime and promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime;” that Iraq posed a threat to US national security by “continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations;” and that “the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, underscored the gravity of the threat posed by the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by international terrorist organizations.” 

In short, there was no bait and switch. And if there was, 77 Senators and 296 House members were right in the middle of it. Hence, it is disingenuous for so many of them to claim they were tricked into supporting the Iraq war. Simply put, they are too savvy to have been duped into supporting the war—and one hopes their constituents are too savvy to be duped into believing they opposed it all along.  

They are linked because we stayed too long
By invading Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein left the defenseless Saudis with two options: cut a deal and surrender, or allow the Americans to dig in. The Saudis chose the latter.

Kuwait was ultimately liberated and Saddam Hussein was weakened, but Washington declared a ceasefire before the American juggernaut could destroy key units of the Republican Guard, which were vital to Saddam’s survival.  

Deflecting criticisms of the war’s imperfect conclusion in their book A World Transformed, the elder Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, argued in 1998 that shutting down the ground war at the hundred-hour mark was the right thing to do. “The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land,” they concluded.  

Of course, that’s effectively what happened, at least in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his followers. Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, US troops took up long-term residence in the Saudi kingdom, a fateful decision that started the clock ticking toward 9/11. As bin Laden himself explained in his oft-quoted 1996 fatwa, his central aim was “to expel the occupying enemy from the country of the two Holy places.”  

Put another way, bin Laden’s casus belli was an unintended and unforeseen byproduct of what Saddam Hussein had done in 1990.  

The presence of US troops in the land of Mecca and Medina had galvanized al Qaeda, which carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001, which triggered America’s global war on terror, which led inevitably back to Iraq, which is where America finds itself today. In a sense, occupation was inevitable after Desert Storm; perhaps the United States ended up occupying the wrong country. 

They are linked because we left too early
If America’s presence in Saudi Arabia sparked bin Laden’s global guerilla war, America’s low threshold for casualties would serve as the fuel to keep it raging.  

From bin Laden’s vantage point, America’s retreat from Beirut in the 1980s, Mogadishu in the 1990s and Yemen in 2000 was evidence of weakness. “When tens of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you,” he recalled. “The extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear. It was a pleasure for the heart of every Muslim and a remedy to the chests of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden and Mogadishu.”

Hence, quitting Iraq could have dramatic and disastrous consequences—something like the fall of Saigon, Desert One, and the Beirut and Mogadishu pullouts all rolled into one giant propaganda victory for the enemy. Not only would it leave a nascent democracy unprotected from bin Laden’s henchmen, it would serve to confirm their perception that America is a paper tiger lacking the will to fight or to stand with those who are willing to fight. Who would count on America the next time? For that matter, on whom would America be able to count as the wars of 9/11 continue?

Finally, retreat would also reenergize the enemy and pave the way toward his ultimate goal. Imagine Iraq spawning a Balkan-style ethno-religious war, while serving as a Taliban-style springboard for terror. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s top terrorist in Iraq, already has: “We fight today in Iraq, and tomorrow in the land of the two Holy Places, and after there the West.”

Without question, America finds itself on the horns of a dilemma: To leave Iraq too early will invigorate the enemy; to stay on will only irritate the Iraqi people. But neither path will bring about an end to terror’s war on America. As one al-Qaeda leader puts it, “the mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq.”[3]

Peering over the horizon of history, President Bush has concluded it is better for American troops to stand and fight than for America to run and hide: “We must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war against the terrorists.”

Or perhaps better said, we must remember what we have forgotten on the long road between 9/11 and today.


[1] See Karlyn Bowman, “America and the War On Terrorism,” AEI STUDIES IN PUBLIC OPINION, November 18, 2005, http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.22819/pub_detail.asp; see also CNN/USA Today polls,  http://www.usatoday.com/news/polls/2005-11-15-iraq-poll.htm.


[2] See Karlyn Bowman, “America and the War On Terrorism,” AEI STUDIES IN PUBLIC OPINION, November 18, 2005, http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.22819/pub_detail.asp; see also CNN/USA Today polls,  http://www.usatoday.com/news/polls/2005-11-15-iraq-poll.htm.


[3] Letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi, July 9, 2005, US Director of National Intelligence, October 11, 2005.