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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Post-Sept. 11 Sense of Solidarity Crumbles Over the War in Iraq

September 15, 2003|Ronald Brownstein

Bells rang, flags bowed to half-staff and survivors achingly intoned the names of the dead on the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last week. Children observed a moment of silence in school. Baseball fans choked back a tear when they heard "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch.

The ceremonies weren't as dramatic as those a year ago, but the sentiments were the same. Speakers everywhere invoked shared sorrow and common resolve. In Washington, one radio station played all of "The Rising," the haunting album Bruce Springsteen wrote to commemorate the tragedy. "Stand strong," the deejay counseled during a break in the songs. "Stand together."

For a few hours, it seemed as if the nation had stepped back to the days after the attacks, right down to the impossibly perfect blue skies over New York and Washington. Yet the exquisite feelings of national solidarity that welled up last week were, in fact, a reminder of how much the sense of unity has frayed since that terrible day.

In 2001, the war against terrorism was a cause that united not only virtually all Americans but most of the world. Today, that cause, as redefined and expanded by President Bush, has become bitterly divisive at home and abroad.

Just two days before the anniversary, the nine Democrats seeking Bush's job in 2004 took turns blasting him during a debate in Baltimore, denouncing his policies for defending the country as a "miserable failure" and an "abomination." At the United Nations, the U.S. was at sword's point with Germany and France. And in England -- America's staunchest ally since Sept. 11 -- the attacks' second anniversary was marked by the release of a parliamentary investigation of Prime Minister Tony Blair that underscored the tensions in that nation over the way the struggle against terrorism has evolved.

In domestic politics and international diplomacy, the climate today bears little resemblance to the one that last week's commemorations briefly recalled. More division on both fronts was perhaps inevitable as the attack receded in time and parochial interests resurfaced. But the principal dividing line between the unity of 2001 and the discord of 2003 has been Bush's decision, with Blair's support, to identify Iraq as the next front in the war against terrorism and launch an invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein.

History may yet record that Bush's decision produced a safer world. But today, even the war's supporters have fewer illusions about its costs. Some of those costs are measured in the steady drumbeat of U.S. casualties and the jaw-dropping $87 billion Bush requested to fund security and reconstruction in Iraq during the next year alone. But the most profound cost has been the fracturing, at home and abroad, of the common purpose that rose from the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center.

The war to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan drew overwhelming approval from Americans and governments around the world. The pursuit of Al Qaeda abroad, by virtually any means necessary, has drawn almost no quarrel. But the war in Iraq, and the occupation, shows every sign of becoming the most divisive use of American arms since Vietnam.

Most Americans rallied to the cause while U.S. troops were in active combat against the Iraqi army. But since the fall of Baghdad, opposition to the war has revived. In an ABC survey released last week, 54% of Americans said the war was worth fighting, down from 70% in April.

Far more than Afghanistan, the war in Iraq is dividing Americans along partisan lines. Three-fifths or more of Democrats now consistently say they believe the United States never should have gone to war in Iraq at all, while at least three-quarters of Republicans still believe it was the right decision. Nearly half of Democrats in the latest ABC poll say they oppose any ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq.

This hostility toward the war from the party faithful is shaping the Democratic presidential race more than any other factor. It has turbocharged the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the most prominent contender who opposed the war. And it has encouraged all of the candidates who supported it to escalate their criticism of both Bush's planning for the postwar challenge and his overall vision of preemptive attack as a centerpiece of U.S. security. Far from the unifying force it was initially after the 2001 attacks, Bush's approach to the war on terrorism now promises to be one of the greatest sources of conflict in next year's campaign.

The Iraq war has opened deeper fissures abroad. Polls around the world show the war has taken a heavy toll on America's image; even in nations that sided with the U.S., such as England and Spain, the public is saying they want their leaders to pursue a foreign policy more independent of U.S. interests.

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