ATLANTA -- In the weeks and months following the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, Americans wanted to believe that our nation could find an easy way back to the illusion of complete security inside the continental United States. Terrorists might strike U.S. embassies in East Africa, U.S. Navy destroyers in Middle Eastern waters or tourist hotels on faraway islands, but we wanted to believe we could keep them from reaching us here a second time.
So when President Bush offered military invasions against two distant countries as the way back to safety at home, most Americans supported him enthusiastically. Not only did most Americans support the strike against Afghanistan, which had offered a haven to al-Qaida, but a majority also backed the invasion of Iraq, which had no link to 9/11.
Some armchair hawks supported the effort to topple Saddam Hussein because they wanted cheap revenge, whether or not he had any link to Osama bin Laden. The United States has the strongest military in the history of the world - the most destructive bombs, the fanciest fighter jets, the fiercest tanks. What's the good of having all that expensive gadgetry if you don't use it every now and then?
Just this June, conservative pundit John Derbyshire confessed in a National Review column that he regretted his early enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq. Quoting a harsh passage he had written earlier, he admitted that his support for that war was hardly based on humanitarian or strategic impulses:
"My attitude to the war is really just punitive, and Iraq was a target of opportunity. I am not a Wilsonian nation-builder. I don't want to `bring democracy to Iraq.' I don't, in fact, give a fig about the Iraqis. I am happy to leave barbarians alone to practice their unspeakable folkways, so long as they do not bother civilized peoples. When they do bother us, though, I want them smacked down with great ferocity."
He was hardly alone. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was eager to attack Iraq because it presented better targets for our advanced weaponry than primitive Afghanistan, according to White House insider accounts.
Perhaps, though, most Americans supported the president because they believed him when he said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he'd give to terrorists to use against us. Americans also believed Mr. Bush when he said Mr. Hussein had ties to al-Qaida.
Mr. Bush had a major advantage in persuading Americans to support his Iraqi misadventure: Voters wanted to believe that ousting Saddam Hussein would take care of terrorists. The president offered the certainty that the nation craved. It's easier to believe in a highly unlikely proposition if you desperately want it to be true.
But 3 1/2 years after the invasion, with bloodshed escalating, the spell has worn off. Americans no longer support our involvement in a conflict that has all the signs of a civil war.
Meanwhile, we are less secure than we were five years ago. Terrorists are using our invasion of Iraq as a recruiting device. While Mr. Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, North Korea apparently now has nukes. Iran is on its way to nuclear capabilities. And we have few soldiers left to handle a conflict anywhere else. Even if Mr. Bush wanted to invade Iran, he has no brigades to send. They're bogged down in Iraq. Moreover, our international alliances are frayed - where they're not ripped to shreds.
All in all, we've paid a high price for our refusal to see ourselves as we really are, not the way we want to be seen. We wanted to be "the shining city on the hill," set apart from the rest of the world, immune from its problems, better, safer, smarter than anybody else.
The United States is a strong and capable nation, but we are vulnerable to bird flu from Singapore, suitcase-size nukes from the old Soviet empire and suicide bombers from Saudi Arabia. Our best strategy for protecting ourselves will always be a nuanced and multifaceted approach using diplomacy, strategic alliances, intelligence-gathering, law enforcement techniques and - as a last resort - military force.
That nuanced approach doesn't appeal to the bully boys who want to send other people's children out to blow up a country. But we should have learned by now to stop listening to them.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.