Fighting the Wrong War

Thursday's terror attacks against London's public transportation system, which killed at least 37 people, came amid indications of growing skepticism about the effectiveness of President George W. Bush's "war on terror," the policy initiative that earned him his highest public-approval ratings.

The Gallup organization released a new survey this week which found that 41% of US respondents believed that neither the US and its allies nor the "terrorists" were currently winning the war, and that a two-and-a-half year high of 20% of the public believed that the "terrorists are winning."

Thirty-six percent of respondents, nearly two-thirds of whom described themselves as Republicans, said the US was winning the war, down sharply from 66% after the US-supported ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan in January 2002, and 65% after US troops captured Baghdad in April 2003.

"Not only did the poll reveal increasing public frustration with the war in Iraq and flagging presidential approval ratings," said Darren Carlson, Gallup's government and politics editor, "but it also showed the public is not too confident that the United States and its allies are winning the war against terrorism."

Whether Thursday's attacks will add to that skepticism and further erode public support for Bush's leadership remains to be seen, although, as noted by Carlson, the growing pessimism about the Iraq war makes him more vulnerable than at any other time since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Previous major bomb attacks give little clue. According to a Newsweek poll taken a week after the Madrid train bombings on March 11 last year, a small majority of respondents said the attacks did not shake their confidence in Bush's strategy.

But in October 2002, just days after the bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed more than 200 people -- mostly Australian tourists -- public confidence in Bush's approach fell to an all-time low: just 32% of respondents said they thought Washington was winning the war at the time.

Adding to Bush's vulnerability at the moment, however, is the fact that most Democrats, who generally stood by the president on foreign-policy matters between the September 11 attacks and the onset of last year's presidential election campaign in the spring of 2004, have been arguing for more than a year now that Bush's invasion of Iraq had diverted key resources and attention from the war against al-Qaeda and other hardline Islamist groups, effectively undermining that effort.

Analysts clearly believe that al-Qaeda or an offshoot was indeed responsible for the London attacks. "It has all the earmarks of al-Qaeda," noted Dennis Ross, director of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy and a top US Middle East negotiator under former presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

He and other analysts noted the well-planned nature of the attacks, their simultaneity, and the timing to coincide with the first day of the Group of Eight summit at Gleneagles, Scotland -- the world's central news event of the week -- as hallmarks of an al Qaeda-like operation.

The BBC reported that a previously unknown group calling itself "The Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe" had claimed responsibility for the explosions. The group reportedly warned the "Danish and Italian government and all other crusaders" to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and that the attacks were carried out in "revenge from the British Zionist crusader government in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Some analysts pointed to a letter purportedly by Osama bin Laden himself that first surfaced June 20 in which he stated that he was "preparing for the next round of jihad:" "We want to give the good news to the Muslim ummah that, with the blessing of Almighty Allah, we have been successful in reorganizing ourselves and are going to launch a jihadi program that is absolutely in accordance with the changed situation."

In the same communique, he warned the leaders of Muslim countries cooperating with enemy efforts that they would be targeted. Over the past week, high-ranking diplomats from the Baghdad embassies of Egypt, Bahrain and Pakistan -- all countries that have been publicly urged by Washington to fully normalize relations with Iraq -- were attacked by insurgents.

On Thursday, the al-Qaeda in Iraq group, reportedly led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, announced that it had executed the charge d'affaires at the Egyptian mission who had been with the first Arab ambassador to post-Saddam Baghdad, Imad al-Sharif, who was abducted from near his home earlier this week.

Michael Chertoff, the secretary for Homeland Security, indicated he also believed that an al-Qaeda-like group was involved in London, but stressed that Washington had no "specific credible information of an imminent attack here." His department raised the terrorism warning alert to Orange and ordered extra precautions on public transportation systems, especially the rail system.

He added that the London's bombings were "not an occasion for undue anxiety" in the United States.

Bush, who arrived at Gleneagles in Scotland on Wednesday, expressed his solidarity with the British and repeated an oft-used line that "the ideology of hope" will win over "the ideology of hate." He also said the bombings showed that "the war on terror goes on."

While the latter observation was unquestionably accurate, it raised the larger question of how that war is defined and carried out.

With polls over the past two months showing a sharp plunge in public approval for the way Bush has carried out the war in Iraq, the president last week tried to rally the nation once again in a prime-time speech that was clearly designed to frame US efforts in Iraq -- an issue on which the public has shown greater skepticism -- as central to the "war on terror," the issue on which his approval ratings have been highest.

Just before the speech, a New York Times/CNN poll, for example, found that public approval for his handling of Iraq was just 37%, while approval for his "campaign against terrorism" stood at 52%, 15 percentage points higher.

Bush's renewed efforts to associate the Iraq war with the "war on terror," which drew loud complaints from Democrats and the media, may not be as effective as in the past. However, a succession of polls in recent months has shown that the public has come increasingly to see the two wars as separate.

Indeed, for the first time since the US invasion of Iraq, a majority of the public, by a 50-47% margin, sees Iraq as distinct from the "war on terror," according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released last week. The same poll found that a similar plurality believes the war in Iraq has made the US less safe from terrorism, and a 53% majority now believes that the Iraq invasion was itself a mistake.

The fact that al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates has now struck in the heart of another Western capital -- and Washington's closest ally - could add to the growing sense that the Iraq war was and remains a diversion from the fight against al-Qaeda, despite the reportedly growing participation of radical Islamists in that conflict.

At the same time, according to Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program of International Policy Attitudes, the attacks could favor Bush, at least in the short term. "Whenever there are bombings close to home, it generates fear, and fear intensifies concern about terrorism and makes people marginally more receptive to the kind of frames that Bush has used," he said.

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