Two days after the September 11 attacks, President Bush declared that "whipping terrorism, hunting it down, finding it and holding them accountable" was "now the focus of my administration."
Domestic policy would remain important, he said, but his priority was taking the fight to an enemy far away. A shell-shocked America rallied behind its President, putting to rest all questions over the nature and extent of his electoral mandate, the cut-and-thrust of partisan politics giving way to a broad Beltway consensus that the President rode all the way into Baghdad. To those charged with ensuring a second term for President Bush, the war on terrorism may once have looked like a dream ticket.
In his most optimistic scenario, Bush would be going into the election season this fall with solid victories in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the scalps of some of America's most noxious enemies under his belt. Europeans and other naysayers would have been chastened by the discovery in Iraq of huge stocks of anthrax and nuclear weapons-in-the-making, and would quickly learn to be more like Tony Blair. Bush would also be pointing to a democratic Afghanistan emerging from the ashes of Taliban misrule, and the first rays of Iraqi freedom beaming into the dark corners of Arab autocracy and extremism, illuminating the steady progress of the Israelis and Palestinians along his "roadmap" to peace. And all of this would serve as a chilling deterrent to the nastier ambitions of his other designated "evildoers," North Korea and Iran. Not only that, these epic gains would have been achieved on the basis of minimal investment of American lives and treasure the war in Afghanistan won from the air and the peace requiring no more than a handful of U.S. troops; Saddam's legions defeated by three mobile U.S. armored divisions who could then pack up and go home leaving handpicked Iraqi exiles to tap ballooning oil revenues and build the Arab world's first pro-U.S., pro-Israel democracy, and so on.
Reality has careened wildly off the Administration script:
That victory in Afghanistan has been partial, at best. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still very much alive in Afghanistan, and are right now in the midst of what appears to be a spectacular comeback. Over the past week, more than 100 Afghanis have been killed in clashes between large Taliban formations and government forces. The authority of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai doesn't extend much beyond the capital; the countryside is in the hands of warlords, opium farmers and jihadis. Some 10,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan to hunt al-Qaeda and its allies, and some 5,000 NATO troops staff International Security Assistance based in the capital. That leaves the Taliban and its allies to pursue the same strategy used by their forebears against the Soviets take control of the countryside, and make it ungovernable from Kabul. Reconstruction efforts are slow and troubled, investors are staying away and the barbarians are rattling the proverbial gate. Despite two years under U.S. tutelage, Afghanistan remains a failed state. It's not costing the U.S. much in terms of lives and treasure (the Administration even forgot to put money for Afghanistan into the foreign aid budget it submitted in February). But its prospects are looking rather bleak.
For the world's jihadists, Iraq is the new Afghanistan that would be Afghanistan twenty years ago, when young Muslim warriors from around the world flocked in to help fight the "infidel" Soviet invader, and in the process founded al-Qaeda. Bin Laden's group on Monday broadcast a new tape urging Islamists everywhere to make their way to Iraq and wage war on American forces there. U.S. forces have captured foreign jihadists during sweeps north of Baghdad, and it was reported this week that up to 3,000 Saudi Islamists may have gone to Iraq to fight the U.S. Tuesday's killer blast at the UN compound was the latest reminder of the difficulties in stabilizing Iraq. The resistance appears to diverse and growing, feeding on religious and nationalist resentment at the occupation and the anger of ordinary Iraqis at the failure of the U.S. to ensure security and restore such basics as electricity and water. The insurgents seek to compound those failures by spreading chaos and fear, disrupting reconstruction efforts by sabotaging pipelines and power grids, attacking technicians and aid workers and killing an American soldier on average every other day, hoping to sap U.S. morale and further alienate the troops from the local population. The bill for the war already runs upward of $60 billion, and some experts predict reconstruction could eventually cost as much as $600 billion. President Bush won't allow the ongoing attacks on coalition forces to shake his resolve to finish the job, but it may now take years and sustained financial and military investment to stabilize Iraq.
Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has suffered a number of casualties in its upper echelons, and a number of its cells and operations have been disrupted through cooperation between U.S. and European, Arab and Asian intelligence services. But Bin Laden's network has also evolved its structures and tactics and successfully adapted to the new reality, decentralizing its already diffuse networks and making them even more difficult to penetrate. The U.S. and its allies will likely continue to pick off key operatives, as in last week's rollup of the most al-Qaeda leader in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian known as Hambali. They may even eventually net the movement's masterminds, such as Bin Laden himself and Ayman al-Zawahiri. But the virus is already out there, and it is mutating. It's a relative certainty that many of the men whose faces appear on the Qaeda scorecard President Bush keeps in his top drawer have had their responsibilities delegated to a wider group of middle managers not necessarily known to allied intelligence agencies. Almost two years after 9/11, al-Qaeda has certainly suffered major organizational setbacks, but it has also been presented with new growth opportunities. The U.S. invasion of Iraq has enhanced support for al-Qaeda's worldview among many young Muslims, and the vacuum created by the occupation has given them a political and operational rallying point around which they hope to extend that support. Tighter security in the U.S. leaves Americans at home considerably safer from attack now than they were two years ago, but al-Qaeda's objective is not to defeat the U.S. at home; it is to drive the U.S. out of Muslim lands. The standing of the U.S. in Arab and Muslim countries has declined, rather than risen, in the two years since 9/11, and that more than anything will help sustain al-Qaeda.
While the Iraq invasion may have intimidated Syria into being more compliant toward U.S. demands, there's mounting evidence that Iran and North Korea have taken the opposite lesson to the one intended by the Bush Administration. Rather than backing away from weapons of mass destruction, both may instead have accelerated their quest for nuclear weapons so as to avoid going the way of Saddam. North Korea swears it already has them, and Washington faces few good policy options as it goes into six-way talks on the issue later this month. Iran denies it, but there is mounting evidence that Tehran is using the cover of its civilian nuclear energy program to put in place the infrastructure that would allow it to quickly build a bomb.
Far from being chastened by what was found in Iraq after Saddam's ouster, the antiwar Europeans are feeling quietly vindicated by the absence of any evidence of an immediate weapons-of-mass-destruction threat, and it's Blair who finds himself in deep political trouble. Washington has little financial and military support for its postwar mission among the most capable nations as long as it insists on unilateral control. In the two years of the war on terrorism, U.S. influence over allied nations appears to have waned rather than waxed.
This week's bus bomb carnage in Jerusalem highlighted how little has changed in the Israeli-Palestinian equation despite the roadmap.
Bush goes into a presidential election season having greatly expanded U.S. commitments to manage a world that appears to have become even more unruly on his watch and at least some Democrats are willing to make an election issue out of his performance.
Remaking whole nation-states in some of the world's most troubled regions is nothing if not a "big government" affair. It may take relatively small numbers of troops to knock out odious regimes, but stabilizing the countries they leave behind inevitably requires a lot more a point some of the Iraq war's key architects, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, seemed conceptually unable to grasp before the war. But as the Economist tartly notes, war lite is all very well, empire lite could be a tragic mistake. Iraq and Afghanistan are only likely to be stabilized if the U.S. is willing to commit a lot more troops, or else persuade competent allies to do so. Presumably, also, the folks on Capitol Hill will have to be willing to give generously when Paul Bremer next comes calling for a reconstruction effort already projecting a $4 billion budget deficit for 2004. European governments and international lending institutions have made clear they will lend only to a duly elected Iraqi government, or in the case of the Europeans, to a UN authority in Baghdad.
Plainly, the U.S. is going to need a lot of help rebuilding Iraq if the burden is not to become an intolerable strain on America's economy and society. And eliciting such help may require the curbing of the Bush administration's signature unilateralism. Some of that may be afoot in reports that the Bush administration may, after all, seek UN authorization for an international security force.
But as election season dawns in America, there's no sign of closure on the horizon in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that will send the President out on the campaign trail with his war on terrorism very much a work in progress.