By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
The television commercial is grim and gripping: A soldier who lost both legs in an explosion near Fallujah explains why he thinks U.S. forces need to stay in Iraq.
"They attacked us," he says as the screen turns to an image of the second hijacked airplane heading toward the smoking World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. "And they will again. They won't stop in Iraq."
Every investigation has shown that Iraq did not, in fact, have anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. But the ad, part of a new $15 million media blitz launched by an advocacy group allied with the White House, may be the most overt attempt during the current debate in Congress over the war to link the attacks with Iraq.
Six years later, the Sept. 11 attacks remain the touchstone of American politics, the most powerful force that can be summoned on behalf of an argument even as a nation united in their aftermath today stands divided on their meaning. While Washington spent yesterday's anniversary debating the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it struggled to define the relationship between the war there and the worldwide battle with al-Qaeda and other extremists.
During the second day of hearings featuring Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, the echoes of Sept. 11 reverberated through the chamber. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential candidate, got Petraeus to repeat his belief that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terror." Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), another White House aspirant, complained about the timing of the hearing because it "perpetuates this notion that, somehow, the original decision to go into Iraq was directly related to the attacks on 9/11."
Some Republicans described the offshoot group al-Qaeda in Iraq as the dominant threat on the ground, playing down the broader sectarian battle for power at the heart of the conflict. Some Democrats called the war a distraction from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, playing down al-Qaeda's determination to use Iraq to strike a blow against U.S. interests.
For his part, President Bush kept a relatively low profile yesterday, attending a small service at St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square and later leading a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House. The White House released a five-page document outlining efforts to prevent future attacks and repeating the argument that "we are fighting violent extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the world so that we do not have to fight them on American soil."
The anniversary comes as U.S. intelligence specialists report that al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the tribal areas of Pakistan and bin Laden just released his first videotapes in nearly three years. The failure to capture him continues to bedevil the Bush team and its supporters.
The president's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, dismissed bin Laden on Sunday as "virtually impotent," drawing criticism from terrorism analysts. And former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who just jumped into the Republican race for president, at first dismissed the importance of catching bin Laden compared with other terrorists who might be in the United States, only to retreat and quickly assert that he, too, wanted to "capture and kill" the al-Qaeda leader.
White House press secretary Tony Snow yesterday renewed the president's commitment to catching bin Laden as well. "We're going to find him," Snow said. But he added that "the war against terror is not the war against one guy."
Steve Simon, a counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration , said such comments are not surprising. "What else are they going to say?" he asked. "It's the sixth anniversary of 9/11 and bin Laden is still out there, probably in Pakistan giving us the finger. At this point, you've got to say he doesn't matter because otherwise it raises important questions."
Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who served on the independent commission that investigated the attacks, said yesterday's Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill demonstrated how "unidimensional" the war with al-Qaeda has become. "How are we best able to counter it?" he asked. "Is it in one place, in Baghdad? Or is it countering in many places it's popping up?"
Although public support for Bush's handling of terrorism has fallen in his second term -- 46 percent of respondents approved of his handling of the issue in this month's Washington Post-ABC News poll, while 51 percent disapproved -- the White House still views al-Qaeda as its most successful justification for remaining in Iraq. After some critics accused Bush of overstating the connection between bin Laden's group and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the White House quickly arranged a presidential speech to defend and reinforce its assertions.
The reason to emphasize al-Qaeda, aides said, is simple. "People know what that means," said one senior official who spoke about internal strategy on the condition of anonymity. "The average person doesn't understand why the Sunnis and Shia don't like each other. They don't know where the Kurds live. . . . And al-Qaeda is something they know. They're the enemy of the United States."
The new ad campaign drives that home more emotionally than any speech. Sponsored by a group of Bush allies under the name Freedom's Watch, four spots are airing in 60 congressional districts in 20 states. The commercials urge Congress to stick with the president's strategy in Iraq. The most poignant of them stars a soldier identified as John Kriesel, who was wounded on Dec. 2, 2006, and is shown walking with two artificial legs.
Former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, one of the group's founders, said the ad is not misleading by saying "they attacked us" in the context of Iraq and showing the image of the Sept. 11 attack. "Iraqis did not attack us on 9/11," he agreed. But it does not matter, Fleischer added, because some of the same sorts of people who did are now fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.
"Nine-one-one absolutely is a bona fide, legitimate reason to remind people what's at stake," he said. "The point is not that Iraq was responsible for 9/11. They're not. But 9/11 should be a vivid reminder to everyone about how vulnerable our country is and that's why we need to win in Iraq."
The question of what relationship the Iraq war has to the broader terrorism fight prompted a tense exchange during yesterday's Senate hearing. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a leading war opponent, suggested Iraq has diverted too much attention and resources. "The question we must answer is not whether we are winning or losing in Iraq but whether Iraq is helping or hurting our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda," Feingold said. "That is the lesson of 9/11, and it's a lesson we must remember today."
Feingold pressed Crocker, who has served as ambassador in Pakistan, to say whether the hunt for radicals in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the campaign in Iraq was more important to defeating al-Qaeda.
Crocker would not choose. "Fighting al-Qaeda in Pakistan is critically important to us," he said. "Fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq is critically important to us."