Are We Defeating Terrorism?

It’s been just about six years since the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001 that killed 3,000 people in New York and Washington, D.C. and launched the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. 

Yet six years on, the American public is dubious that we are succeeding. Right after the late 2001 defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, 64 percent to 66 percent of Americans thought the United States and its allies were winning the war against terrorism, as shown in the graph below. This optimism declined throughout 2002 when it became apparent that Osama bin Laden had escaped from Afghanistan and little progress was being made in hunting him down.

The invasion of Iraq brought a new wave of optimism about winning the war against terrorism, and opinion spiked upward to 65 percent before the current long decline in confidence began. Today, according to a mid-June Gallup poll, just 29 percent think that the United States and its allies are winning the war against terrorism, compared to 50 percent who think neither side is winning and 20 percent who believe the terrorists are winning.

This suggests that the ongoing  war in Iraq has drastically eroded public confidence that our struggle against terrorism can succeed. And an early August CBS News poll helps explain why. According to the poll, the public is currently far more likely to believe our involvement in Iraq is creating terrorists who are planning on attacking the United States (46 percent) than believe our involvement is eliminating them (18 percent).

And what about Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, the group that actually planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks? According to a mid-July Fox News poll, the public overwhelmingly believes the Bush administration has not pursued Al Qaeda aggressively enough. Combine that with the public’s views on the usefulness of the Iraq war in fighting terrorism, and you have a powerful message for the current administration. If they cared to listen.

Last month the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine conducted its third twice-yearly survey of foreign policy experts across the political spectrum. To see how the experts’ opinions stack up against the public: