Ironically, the end of the war in Iraq was announced the day after the campaign in Libya ended. Iraq and Libya epitomize two radically different approaches for dealing with terrorism: massive intervention and targeted strikes.
The war in Iraq was led by the United States. It lasted nearly nine years and cost the U.S. $1 trillion and over 4,400 American lives. The outcome is still uncertain. The Libyan revolution was led by the Libyan people. The conflict lasted seven months. No U.S. combatants were killed, although several American journalists lost their lives. The cost to the United States was about $1.1 billion, or about a thousand times less than the war in Iraq. The Libyan revolution succeeded.
The Bush Administration justified the war in Iraq as "the central front" in the war on terror. "September the 11th should say to the American people that we are now a battlefield," President Bush said at a news conference just after the U.S. invasion. The idea was that the United States, as a matter of its own national security, had to disarm Iraq in order to prevent another 9/11.
The American public bought that argument. In the March 2003 Gallup poll, 88 percent were of the opinion that Saddam Hussein was supporting terrorist groups that had plans to attack the United States. In fact, 51 percent believed the Iraqi leader was personally involved in 9/11. That's the reason why Americans supported something they had never supported, or even imagined, in the past -- a pre-emptive war.
There was only one check on Bush's bold agenda: the American people. Bold agendas make Americans nervous. Americans have no ambition to remake the world. Their ambition is simple. They just want to feel safe.
By 2004, the terrorism issue and the Iraq issue began to diverge. As the insurgency in Iraq intensified, Americans became disillusioned with the war in Iraq and started to see it as a distraction from the war on terror. First the former U.S. weapons inspector acknowledged that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Then the 9/11 commission reported finding "no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." Shortly thereafter, for the first time, a majority of Americans said the war in Iraq was a mistake.
From that time on, the war continued to lose public support, even though, after the troop surge in 2007, Americans believed the security situation in Iraq was improving. Last year, only one quarter of Americans felt the U.S. was safer from terrorism as a result of the war in Iraq, according to the USA Today-Gallup poll.
Muammar Gaddafi was more clearly linked to anti-U.S. terrorism than Saddam Hussein was -- the bombing in 1986 of a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. servicemen, the 1988 downing of Pan Am 103 that resulted in 270 fatalities, including 189 Americans. But the U.S. did not invade Libya. "Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives," President Obama announced following Gaddafi's death last week. The Libyan people started -- and finished -- their own revolution with support from the international community, including the United States.
The Obama Administration has banished the term "war on terror." But it has still pursued a vigorous anti-terrorism policy. The President summarized that policy last week: "We've taken out al Qaeda leaders, and we've put them on the path to defeat. We're winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with frieds and allies, we've demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century." ABC News lists nearly two dozen "senior terrorists" eliminated by the Obama Administration. President Obama's job rating on terrorism, at 64 percent approval, is higher than his rating on any other issue, according to polling this month by the Associated Press.
Last week, Karl Rove told The New York Times, "To the degree Obama tries to suggest he should be re-elected because of foreign policy strength, he looks like he's dodging the main issue." Keep in mind that Rove was the Bush strategist who advised Republicans a few months after 9/11, "We can go to the country on this issue" because voters "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."
That is exactly what Republicans did in 2002 and 2004. And it worked.
Follow Bill Schneider on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BillSchneiderDC