Two years later: At a crossroad

Within days of September 11, many analysts defined the event as a historical turning point with lasting consequences for the United States and its role in the world. The American public, while deeply shaken by the catastrophe, did not quite perceive it the same way. After the initial shock, the public responded by trying to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible. It gave the president carte blanche in fighting the war on terrorism, but expected life to go on in a peacetime mode.

Two years later, the public’s complacency is finally being shaken by the combination of bad news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the president’s admission that the war on terrorism has just begun and, most importantly, the realization that the new, aggressive US policy carries a staggering price tag. While blind faith in the Bush administration’s foreign policy is being replaced by a more questioning attitude, it remains unclear whether the public will ultimately rally behind the administration and its politically and financially costly policy of preemptive intervention, or opt for a more cautious policy, entailing less glory but also less cost. For the public, the post-September 11 turning point is now and it is not clear what direction Americans will choose.

After September 11, US citizens were subjected to a barrage of contradictory messages from the government. They were urged to return to normal life as quickly as possible–"go to a theatre and eat out," Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told New Yorkers just days after the attack. They were also invited to be on guard. They were simultaneously promised increased homeland security and told that more terrorist attacks were inevitable. They were inundated with security alerts without any guidance, other than vague platitudes like "be vigilant" and recommendations to buy duct tape and bottled water. The war on terrorism seemingly required simultaneous implementation of contradictory policies, rather than choices.

In the confusion, most people heeded the message that they should go back to ordinary life. Security alerts soon left the public indifferent after threats failed to materialize. Outside the major cities, most convinced themselves that their towns were too insignificant to be terrorism targets. After a short-lived run on duct tape and bottled water, even people in large cities learned to ignore security alerts–today, most would be hard put to tell whether the alert code for the day is an alarming orange or a less threatening hue.

What the administration failed to tell America was that the war on terrorism, of which the invasion of Iraq is the most visible manifestation, entailed a long-term commitment of military personnel and carried a hefty price tag. It did not tell the public and it refused to tell Congress. Bush declared victory in Iraq and kept quiet about the continuing casualties. When senators, including high-ranking Republicans, started asking pointed questions about troop levels and cost in July 2003, administration officials cited the unpredictability of the occupation and refused to provide specifics. As a result, neither Congress nor the public was prepared for the developments of the last two weeks, which shattered the illusion that the US could fight the war on terrorism with the instruments chosen by the Bush administration without paying a high price.

First, a report by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the US could not possibly maintain 140,000 troops–the present level–in Iraq past next March without calling up reserves for long periods. Then came the administration’s about face on United Nations involvement. The decision to seek a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of an international force in Iraq constitutes a de facto admission that the United States needs help so badly that it is willing to make at least limited concessions to obtain it.

Next, President Bush gave a speech on September 7 warning that the war on terrorism, including the occupation of Iraq, would require a long-term commitment and sacrifices. The warning was not simply election year rhetoric, as evidenced by the following day’s request for $87 billion for the 2004 fiscal year to support the occupation and the reconstruction of Iraq. The war on terrorism, which most Americans had dismissed as a figure of speech, suddenly became a very concrete and costly conflict. And the illusion that this war could be fought while everything else stayed the same was quickly dissipated.

For the first time, the American public is faced with the full implications of September 11 and must make a conscious choice between supporting the administration’s policy of force, and the desire to slip back into normalcy. It is a choice the public did not expect to confront, particularly not at this late date, when the shock of September 11 has worn off, threat perceptions have attenuated, and people are more complacent.

It is thus impossible to predict whether Americans will back Bush or balk and look for new leadership. But it is clear that two years after September 11 Americans are at a crossroads–they have discovered that even the world’s only superpower cannot wage war while feigning peacetime normalcy, and thus must choose.