One War or Two?

The public views the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism as two different things.

The Bush administration has always linked the war in Iraq to 9/11 and the war on terrorism. Administration officials argue that the United States went to war pre-emptively in Iraq because it could not afford to wait for another attack like 9/11. President Bush put it this way in his June 28 address to the nation from Fort Bragg, N.C. "We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy. Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war."

To the public, however, the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism are two different issues. Otherwise, how can one explain the persistent discrepancy between Bush's high approval ratings on terrorism and his low ratings on Iraq? At election time last November, most Americans (55 percent) approved of the way Bush was handling terrorism, according to The New York Times/CBS News poll. His rating on Iraq was 10 points lower (45 percent).

In last month's Times/CBS poll, the president's rating on terrorism was still positive, though it had slipped a bit to 52 percent approval. But his approval rating on Iraq had tumbled to 37 percent. The discrepancy is growing.

The White House continues to link the two issues, in what has become a strategy aimed at boosting sagging support for the war in Iraq. "Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on June 22. "We are fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here at home."

A new CIA report, however, argues that Iraq may prove to be a more effective training ground for terrorists than Afghanistan was under the Taliban. Iraq is giving Islamic militants real-world experience in assassinations, car bombings, kidnappings, and urban warfare. The war may have made the Iraq-terrorism nexus stronger, not weaker. The 9/11 commission found no evidence of a continuing operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda before the war. "Nor," the commission's report says, "have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with Al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."

The link between Iraq and terrorism provided a powerful argument for war in 2003, even though the administration did not prove its case. Now the evidence of a link is much stronger—and the administration is using it to make the case for "staying the course" in Iraq.

But the public is less receptive. Indeed, Americans have turned anti-war. The Gallup Poll asks, "Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war with Iraq?" Just before the major fighting ended in April 2003, 27 percent of respondents said they opposed the war. After the presidential election last November, Americans were split—48 percent favored the war, 46 percent opposed it. Last month, a solid majority—59 percent—said they oppose the war.

In a statement aimed at boosting support for the war, Bush made an explicit connection between Iraq and 9/11 in his June 18 radio address. "We went to war because we were attacked," Bush said, "and we are at war today because there are still people out there who want to harm our country and hurt our citizens."

A few days later, Karl Rove, the president's deputy chief of staff, told an audience in New York, "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding to our attackers." Democrats were outraged. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said of Rove, "He knows full well, as do all Americans, that our country came together after 9/11. There was [nearly] unanimous support for our going into Afghanistan."

The division came later. Over Iraq, not over 9/11. The White House is imputing that division to 9/11 in order to boost support for the war in Iraq. The idea is to make the Iraq war and the war on terrorism look like the same fight, domestically as well as internationally.

That argument could backfire, however. Right now, public satisfaction with the way things are going in the war on terrorism is the lowest it's been since 9/11—52 percent, according to Gallup. The drop is not because Americans feel more threatened. They don't. The number of respondents who say that further acts of terrorism against the U.S. are likely in the near future has gone down, from more than 50 percent a year ago to just over one-third now.

The discontent is being fueled by the situation in Iraq, which has eclipsed terrorism as a public concern. When the Times/CBS poll asked respondents in June what was the most important problem facing the country, more than three times as many people mentioned Iraq as mentioned terrorism.

According to Gallup, 84 percent of the people who support the war in Iraq are satisfied with the way things are going in the war on terrorism. Among those who oppose the war in Iraq, satisfaction with the country's terrorism policy is more than 50 points lower (30 percent).

The growing anti-war sentiment is swelling the public's dissatisfaction with the administration's policy on terrorism, as more and more Americans seem to conclude that the Iraq war isn't working. And as they hear reports that Iraq is making terrorism a more serious threat.