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The War on Terror, Two Years After

It’s two years since terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and killed thousands of Americans. It’s an appropriate time to assess how Americans view the war or terror that has unfolded since then. Do they feel safer? Do they approve of how the Bush administration has prosecuted the war on terror? To the extent they don’t, what do they think should be done differently?

An extensive poll just released by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) provides some purchase on these questions.

First, do Americans feel safer than they did two years ago, in the wake of the terrorist attacks? Not really. Only 24 percent feel safer, compared to 28 percent who feel less safe and 48 percent who believe there hasn’t been much change. And when the question is framed simply in terms of whether Bush administration efforts to reduce terrorist attacks have made them feel safer, the response is still not very positive: 46 percent say those efforts have made them feel safer, while 53 percent say either that the efforts haven’t made much difference (45 percent) or actually feel the efforts have made them feel less safe (8 percent).

The public also feels that the US military presence in the Middle East is not making them safer. By 2:1 (64 percent to 32 percent), they believe that presence is increasing, not decreasing, the likelihood of attacks.

The poll also finds the public endorsing the idea that the Bush administration has been too assertive and uncooperative in its approach to the war on terror. Indeed, by 81 percent to 16 percent, the public says the more important lesson of September 11 is that "the US needs to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism" rather than "the US needs to act on its own more to fight terrorism". That’s up from a 61 percent to 34 percent split in the middle of 2002.

In addition, about four times as many Americans (54 percent) think the Bush administration has been too assertive in its relations with other countries than think it has been too cooperative (14 percent). And by almost 40 points (66 percent to 27 percent), the public believes the Bush administration should adopt a more cooperative attitude in its relations with other countries. Finally, when asked to evaluate the proper course for Bush administration efforts in the future, compared to what it has done in the past, the public endorses diplomatic/economic methods over military methods by 58 percent to 35 percent.

The PIPA poll also gave respondents a wide range of different approaches to the problem of terrorism and asked them to rate the approaches. The three approaches that were the most explicitly multilateral were among the ones that scored highest: setting up an international system to cut off funding to terrorists (79 percent in favor); setting up a UN database of terrorists to which all countries would contribute (76 percent); and working through the UN to strengthen international laws against terrorism and making sure UN members cooperate to enforce them (73 percent). Other highly rated choices were reducing US dependence on oil and putting pressure on the Saudi government to shut down terrorist groups (both 75 percent). In contrast, purely military approaches like overthrowing the government of Iran (30 percent) or Syria (21 percent) fared poorly.

It’s amazing how different the public perspective on pursuing the war on terror is from the Bush administration approach. It’s up to the Democrats, in a sense, to give public opinion its voice on these issues. We can be very sure the Republicans won’t.

September 11, 2003
posted 11:06 pm