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Haunting memories of Sept. 11 shape Syria debate

Wednesday - 9/11/2013, 12:00pm  ET

AP: 9a477c35-5e0a-42df-a9fc-d66b3b793a03
A visitor kisses an name on the wall containing the 40 names of the crew and passengers of Flight 93 at the Flight 93 National Memorial during a candlelight remembrance on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

JOSH LEDERMAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Twelve years later, haunting memories of Sept. 11 are shaping the debate over what to do about Syria.

As Americans mark the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the nation again is wrestling with painful questions about al-Qaida, weapons of mass destruction and the risks of American inaction. At the center of the debate is President Barack Obama, who has sought to move the U.S. away from what he has called the "perpetual wartime footing" it found itself on in the years after 9/11.

"America is not the world's policeman," Obama said Tuesday evening as he addressed the nation about the Syria conflict. "Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act."

Some people worry that a U.S. strike in Syria would embroil the American military in an extended and unwinnable conflict in the Middle East, evoking emotions many felt in the years after 9/11 as they watched America's sons and daughters go back for second and third tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Others see Syria through a broader Mideast prism involving Iran. They fear that if the U.S. doesn't assert itself now, America will start from a position of weakness if and when it confronts future threats in the region.

When Obama and the first lady stand on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday morning to commemorate 9/11 victims with a moment of silence, there's a good chance at least some of these themes will be weighing on the president.

AL-QAIDA AS TOP THREAT

The international terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden became synonymous with "America's enemy" in the days after 9/11. More than a decade later, bin Laden is dead and Obama says the group's core is on the path to defeat. But blows to al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan have come amid growing concerns about al-Qaida's strength in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and even Syria.

That foreign jihadi fighters, many linked to al-Qaida, are growing in ranks among rebels fighting Assad's regime is a major concern for lawmakers and the U.S. Assad and his forces have sought to exploit that concern, arguing, in short, that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Assad said of a potential U.S. strike in an interview Sunday with American journalist Charlie Rose, "This is the war that is going to support al-Qaida and the same people that kill Americans in the 11th of September."

STATE OF ALERT

Although Americans are far less jittery about the threat of terrorism than they were in the aftermath of 9/11, they're still keenly aware of turmoil in the Middle East and its challenges for the U.S.

Nearly all Americans -- 94 percent -- say the war on terrorism has not yet been won, according to a new Associated Press poll. Just 14 percent of those Americans say it's likely the U.S. will win it during the next 10 years.

Such sentiments were punctuated Tuesday when Obama, hours before his national address on Syria, signed a notice extending the national emergency for another year.

"The terrorist threat that led to the declaration on Sept. 14, 2001, of a national emergency continues," Obama wrote to Congress.

Compounding concerns have been new threats to America's embassies and consulates. A threat from Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula led to the closing of 19 diplomatic posts across the Mideast and in Africa last month. And as Obama considered a strike in Syria last week, the State Department was ordering nonessential American diplomats to leave the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Lebanon because of the potential for retaliation from Iran-backed Hezbollah, a group allied with Assad.

IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN

With the U.S. military struggling to absorb deep automatic spending cuts, few Americans are eager for the U.S. to get involved in a civil war already raging for more than two years, with no end in sight.

Obama, who ran for president as a critic of the Iraq war, ended it as president and is winding down the U.S. war in Afghanistan, is of similar mind.

"I know how tired the American people are of war generally, and particularly war in the Middle East. And so I don't take these decisions lightly," Obama said in an NBC interview Monday.

Obama and his aides know many Americans reflexively resist anything that calls to mind the aggressive stance President George W. Bush took after 9/11. They're insisting any U.S. action will be limited and won't involve troops on the ground.

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