Iraq Syndrome Redux

Behind the Tough Talk

Combat boots bearing the names of some 800 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, May 25, 2004.
Combat boots bearing the names of some 800 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, May 25, 2004. (Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

The Iraq Syndrome has played a role in U.S. politics for nearly a decade. As I wrote in 2005, public support for the war in Iraq followed the same course as for the wars in Korea and Vietnam: broad acceptance at the outset with erosion of support as casualties mount. The experience of those past wars also suggests that there was nothing U.S. President George W. Bush could do to reverse this deterioration -- or to stave off an "Iraq Syndrome" that would inhibit U.S. foreign policy in the future.

In recent years, the Iraq Syndrome has indeed colored U.S. foreign policy -- from its timorous “lead from behind” approach in Libya (where American forces have since been withdrawn due to the ensuing civil war) to its cheerleader (vast proclamation and half-vast execution) approach to the Arab Spring. The Iraq Syndrome could be seen in fullest flower last year, when U.S. President Barack Obama, supported by Republican leaders in Congress, initially signaled that he would bomb Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons and then backtracked when his plans were met with intense hostility by a public determined not to be dragged into another war in the Middle East -- even though no American lives were likely to be lost in the exercise and even though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured Americans that the bombings would be “unbelievably small.”

Just over a year later, the Iraq Syndrome has found a new application, as it happens, in Iraq itself. It has been obvious for some time that last decade’s Iraq War would spawn a “let’s not do that again” attitude. For example, a poll in relatively hawkish Alabama in 2005 -- even before the Iraq War got really bad -- found that only a third of the respondents agreed that the United States should be prepared to send troops back to Iraq to establish order if a full-scale civil war erupted there after a U.S. withdrawal. The percentage today would likely be considerably lower, even as Iraq teeters on the brink of collapse.

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