August 30, 2005 | National Review Online

Mission Shift

Declining polls reflect drift, not public support for battling militant Islam.

Why are the polls down? Is public support for the war crumbling? Well, no. But the explanation for plummeting numbers varies depending on which war you are talking about.

If you mean what started out as the “war on terror,” support remains high. You may recall that war. It was about the eradication of militant Islam and its state sponsors. To the extent there is public uneasiness, it is not over the fact of that war but rather the manner in which it is being prosecuted, with terrorists continuing to score successes and their facilitators in Iran and Syria making war on American forces with impunity.

But if you're talking about what the “war on terror” has lately evolved into — namely, the war to spread freedom — public support cannot fairly be described as “crumbling.” Public support for that war was never there in the first place.

This is the Iraq problem, and the confusion attendant to it was on display Sunday in this summation offered by David Brooks of the New York Times: “Today, public opinion is turning against the war not because people have given up on the goal of advancing freedom, but because they are not sure this war is winnable. Why should we sacrifice more American lives to a lost cause?”

This cry is a common one. It is also dead wrong, from its bedrock assumptions straight through to its dreary conclusion. The American people did not go to war for “the goal of advancing freedom.” There are many countries which are not free, and while we work to change that, we would not invade them to change that. No, the American people went to war to protect the national security of the United States from current and gathering threats which they understood, after September 11, 2001, could no longer responsibly be waited out. Spreading freedom was not near the front of their minds.

It seems now a distant memory, but we started off right after the 9/11 attacks with a crystal-clear purpose. “You're with us or you're with the terrorists,” as President Bush succinctly put it. This was not evangelism of freedom and democracy. It was a stern notice to every jihadist and every state sponsor that the day of reckoning was at hand.

After spectacular success in Afghanistan, however, we bogged down for months in the Sisyphean U.N. diplomacy of Iraq. In the futile hope of winning Security Council backing, the main “war on terror” rationale against Saddam — based on his rich history of abetting militant Islam — was subordinated to the narrow case that he was hoarding weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions.

As it turned out, that longstanding justification was based on faulty intelligence that overstated the threat. The weapons have not materialized, at least on the anticipated scale. With the pivotal WMD rationale for invasion undermined, the removal of Saddam suddenly carried far less weight for the public on the positive side of the war's accomplishments-versus-sacrifices ledger.

Worse still, perhaps because the WMD debacle highlighted the deplorable state of U.S. intelligence, the administration was gun-shy about stressing Saddam's prodigious (but heretofore neglected) record of terror-mongering — which, of course, was also dependent on intelligence.

The failure to engage on Saddam's terror ties, in turn, lent credence to the ludicrous charge that there had been no terrorism in Iraq before the U.S. created it by invading. Yet, contrary to the WMD situation, our intelligence had failed on terror ties by understating the threat. In point of fact, the easy intermingling of jihadists with the other malcontents of the so-called “insurgency” owes precisely to the fact that Saddam, as the 1990s wore on, had made Iraq a haven for militant Islam.

In any event, WMD and terror ties comprised the logical rationale for extending the war on terror to Iraq — which is to say, the publicly supported national-security rationale, in the absence of which we would never have invaded. Without establishing them, our long and difficult presence in Iraq would increasingly come to be seen as a blunder. To avoid that, less significant war aims have been elevated to the status of war justifications. The administration has swaddled the dicey Iraq initiative in the noble raiment of freedom spreading and democracy building.

To be clear, I am not saying this is a fabrication. We went to Iraq specifically to topple the regime. Implicit in that was replacing it with something better. From the American people's perspective, though, “something better” merely meant something that would not threaten our national security. Let's be blunt: The ambitious hope for a freedom juggernaut was never more than an enticing possibility. It was the right thing to promote — to the extent it did not interfere with our war priorities. But as far as the public was concerned, it was never a sufficient cause for invading Iraq, nor had it been offered as such.

Moreover, when invasion was being debated, the Herculean task of democratically transforming the Islamic world was never pressed on the American people as central to the mission. Now, it appears to have become the mission, to the point that trying to co-opt jihadists into a political process has somehow become more important than killing them and dealing with the terror states helping them murder Americans — the actual aims of the war we started out fighting (and whose accomplishment would hold more promise for transformation than the iffy Iraqi political process, which teeters largely because hovering terrorists and their backers have not been quelled).

Yes, Americans have made immense nation-building sacrifices before. But the peril posed by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan was indisputably real — no one could attribute it to bad intelligence. After years of war and thousands upon thousands of casualties, Americans understood that their security hinged on supplanting those regimes with something approximating Anglo-American governance, however long that took. And we made sure the enemy was utterly defeated before those rebuilding efforts took place. No one has ever made the case that what was true of Germany and Japan is true of Iraq — and it is anything but obvious on the surface.

Thus it is unsurprising to find public opinion souring. Advancing freedom, something that was never a rallying cry, turns out to be much more burdensome than anticipated. Americans don't believe, as Brooks suggests, that advancing freedom in Iraq is a “lost cause.” It is, instead, a cause they've never been sold on to begin with. Thin, to say the least, will be their patience for expending precious lives and copious sums on it unless it is convincingly tied to American national security.

What the American people care about is defeating militant Islam. Notice that even people who've never been enthusiastic about going to Iraq, and who would not commit U.S. troops to advance freedom in, say, Sudan (where regime atrocities against the citizenry are comparable to Saddam's Iraq), reluctantly agree that we cannot pull out of Iraq now. That's not because they've suddenly been converted to the freedom-spreading project. It's because they know that leaving when terrorism runs rampant would be a victory for militant Islam. It would encourage our enemies toward more terrorism.

Vanquishing jihadists and their facilitators is something Americans now connect instinctively to their security. It will always have their strong support and never be thought a lost cause. But as long as the war on terror is portrayed as an airy and potentially limitless campaign to spread freedom, the public will not ardently support it. The causal connection between the Islamic world being free and Americans being safe is not clear. Indeed, it has never been.

— Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.