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The Terror War and Remembrance

Prepared by: Michael Moran, and Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: September 12, 2006

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Anniversaries tell us little about progress when it comes to something as abstract as a "war on terror." Still, as U.S. leaders reflect on the atrocities of September 11, 2001 (AP), many minds are wondering: Is America winning or losing this fight?

No simple answer exists. Americans, polled just ahead of the anniversary, indicate they regard their nation to be at least as vulnerable to terrorism (PDF) as on September 11, 2001. Polls also suggest a majority do not see the war raging in Iraq as contributing to progress in the terror war (WSJ). Further, though pundits fight the notion (National Journal), pollsters consistently see isolationism, the old bogeyman of U.S. foreign policymakers, on the rise.

President George W. Bush and supporters of the preemptive National Security Strategy insist "We're on the offense against the terrorists.” The president stressed this point in a national address on the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks, defending the purpose, if not the execution, of the war in Iraq: “Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone.”

The White House views the Iraq War, the Afghan War, and the many smaller counterterrorist actions around the globe as part of a single, overarching battle (VOA) against "Islamofascism" that has raged for decades but which America only woke up to on September 11, 2001. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned in a new statement that U.S. forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are "doomed" and that U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf would be among the group’s next targets (al-Jazeera). CFR.org offers a  9/11 anniversary issue guide for a complete look at the issues that have confronted the United States in the past five years.

Max Boot, CFR’s senior national security fellow, argues it is too early (TIME) to spy either victory or defeat in such a war. As with communism in the 1990s, he writes, "the malignant status quo in the Middle East could crumble more quickly than anyone expects." Henry A. Crumpton, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, echoes the "long war" caveat, depicting al-Qaeda as "crippled" in a CFR interview, yet conceding it remains a potent, evolving threat. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said of the Iraq and Afghan campaigns, the United States faces "a long, hard slog" (CNN).

And those are the optimists. Others construe progress quite differently. Speaking on homeland security and counterterrorism, Lee H. Hamilton, cochairman of the 9/11 Commission, told CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman "I would agree with the general assessment that we are safer than we were prior to 9/11, but we are not safe." More pointed critics insist that is too narrow a measurement, and that the plunge in America’s reputation abroad (New Yorker Online), the spiraling cost in lives—both coalition and Iraqi—and in dollars (PDF), plus the strain on the military, leaves the United States in a more perilous situation today than on the morning of the attacks. The Economist, a British weekly which supported the Iraq War, now views the U.S. response to 9/11 quite differently after the failure to find suspected weapons of mass destruction, the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Haditha, and the current near-anarchy in Iraq. America's seeming abandonment of the moral high ground has "won more recruits for the jihadists," the magazine says. But journalist Christopher Hitchens says the United States and its allies need to become “more ruthless and more experienced” to be able to confront what he called “the worst imaginable enemy” (WSJ).

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