On September 1, 1939, Hitler's armies rolled across the western border of Poland. On September 3, England and France declared war on Germany. But the two great powers, unable to intervene in strength in Poland, did not take action right away. A lull–"prolonged and oppressive," in Churchill's words—followed. The "phony war," as many called it, had begun. (Churchill called it the "twilight war.") England promptly sent bombers over Germany—but only to drop millions of propaganda leaflets. And so the time was also called "the confetti war." Everyone knew, however, that the die had been cast, that real war would come. And it did come, of course, at a cost of some 46 million lives.
On September 20, 2001, war was once again declared—this time by an American President, supported by Congress. But once again there was a lull, a kind of phony war. The President's words before the joint session of Congress were clear enough. Either the Taliban government of Afghanistan must yield up the Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden and other accused terrorists or it would "share in their fate." And yet over the next several days, in perhaps the swiftest climb-down from an ultimatum in American history, this clear commitment appeared to melt away. It was a welcome change to dovish analysts, but vexing to hawks and confusing to all. Did the United States really mean to unseat the Taliban? The President's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, didn't see it that way. When Bush, using much politer language than he had before Congress, suggested that the best way to bring to justice those responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks was "to ask for the cooperation of citizens within Afghanistan who may be tired of having the Taliban in place," Fleischer rushed out to assure the world that American action "is not designed to replace one regime with another regime." Two days after the attack, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that US policy should be "ending states who sponsor terrorism," but four days after that Secretary of State Colin Powell said he'd prefer to say that "ending terrorism is where I would like to leave it and let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself." At the end of September, Wolfowitz himself said, "I think it can't be stressed enough that everybody who is waiting for military action…needs to rethink this thing." It was as if, after their declaration of war on Germany in 1939, France and England had announced the next week that they hadn't exactly meant Germany, maybe hadn't even meant war. Had the President been bluffing? After reflection, was he moving to a more sober policy, without being able to say so?
At the beginning of October, the winds seemed to shift again. Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, declared that the Taliban's choice was "to surrender the terrorists or surrender power," and Bush said that this had been "exactly" his message to Congress. Bush had said that the United States was not "into nation-building," but now an 86-year-old former Afghan monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was rolled forward as the possible leader of a regime to replace the Taliban. Government counsel to the American public was as changeable as policy. Ari Fleischer wanted Americans to get on with a "normal" existence, and President Bush wanted them to "get on board" airplanes again, but Attorney General John Ashcroft warned, "We think that there is a very serious threat of additional problems now," and added, "and, frankly, as the United States responds, that threat may escalate."