June 26, 2005

Preparing for War

Mark Blumenthal, Mystery Pollster, scratches around in the archives and finds... that Democrats reacted to September 11 just like Republicans did, ready to lock and load all the way to Kabul. Well, no kidding. One thing that's interesting to note, though, is that the post-9/11 situation was fairly unique in that we actually had someone to go to war with. After a terrorist attack that left a lot of people wanting to smash and pulverize something back into the Stone Age, it just so happened that there actually was a country we got to go smash and pulverize—a concurrence which, I think, helped George Bush maintain his fantastically high ratings through late 2001 and all through 2002. It was obviously quite satisfying for a lot of people to invade Afghanistan in a way that it wouldn't have been satisfying to hand out indictments or send the CIA off on secret terrorist-hunting missions. But what if there hadn't been an Afghanistan to smash up? Things would've been trickier.

Initially, of course, the Bush administration tried to negotiate with the Taliban and get them to turn over bin Laden, Zawihiri, Abu Zubaydah, and the rest. That didn't work, but if it had worked, and bin Laden had been handed over on a silver platter, there may not have been an invasion at all—judging by Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, Rumsfeld wasn't all that excited about attacking Afghanistan in the first place—and instead the U.S. would've been sitting around handing out indictments and prosecuting terrorists. True, there still would've been some military action: the U.S. would have almost certainly bombed more al-Qaeda camps in the region, and the Taliban likely would've collapsed eventually after alienating all those Islamic militants it had been counting on to fight the Northern Alliance. But the whole thing might've been much less than the full-scale war we actually got.

Now it's true that indictments and precision attacks on bases wouldn't have been enough for Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, etc., and in our alternate universe, after the bin Laden trial finished, the administration would have likely fired up the war machine and trained its sights on Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, without a successful Afghanistan invasion under his belt, the president would have had a much harder time making the case that we could succeed against Iraq. The stunning and rapid defeat of the Taliban really was pretty decisive in convincing people that war was no big deal—and much of that credit, as I've said before, goes to Bush, who pushed hard for a seemingly-impossible invasion before winter set in, and avoided getting bogged down by NATO. A more cautious president like Al Gore, I think, might have waited until spring of 2002 to invade, at which point he would have had less public support, and probably a more difficult war to fight on the ground. And that would have meant no Iraq, for sure.

But back to the point: a lot of the unity surrounding the Afghanistan campaign came from the fact that it was a very clear and obvious thing to do in response to 9/11 (although the country was still considered the "graveyard of empires", etc., and few thought the invasion would be easy). We simply didn't have to weigh the dilemmas of, say, attacking a nuclear-armed Pakistan—if Musharraf had been held responsible there would have been much less of a popular consensus behind our next move. That holds true today, I think: if there's another terrorist attack tomorrow, there's not going to be an Afghanistan to attack—even Syria and Iran will be tricky—and without the obvious war option handy, there will be, I think, much less agreement on what to do.
-- Brad Plumer 8:18 PM || ||