Public support for the war in Iraq has followed the same course as it did for the wars in Korea and Vietnam: broad enthusiasm at the outset with erosion of support as casualties mount. The experience of those past wars suggests that there is nothing President Bush can do to reverse this deterioration -- or to stave off an "Iraq syndrome" that could inhibit U.S. foreign policy for decades to come.
In a November/December 2005 Foreign Affairs article, “The Iraq Syndrome,” I concluded that Americans, because of the experience in Iraq, were likely acquiring a perspective on intervening in overseas conflicts somewhat like the one that followed the Vietnam War. Such once-fashionable terms as “unilateralism,” “preemption,” “preventive war,” and “indispensable nationhood,” I wrote, were beginning to pick up a “patina of quaintness.” I argued that there would likely be growing skepticism about the notions that “the United States should take unilateral military action to correct situations or overthrow regimes it considers reprehensible but that present no immediate threat to it, that it can and should forcibly bring democracy to other nations not now so blessed, that it has the duty to rid the world of evil, that having by far the largest defense budget in the world is necessary and broadly beneficial, that international cooperation is of only very limited value, and that Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners are naive and decadent wimps.” Most radically, I went on to suggest that the United States might “become more inclined to seek international cooperation, sometimes even showing signs of humility.”
A lot of that seems to have come true in the intervening half decade. The Obama administration has made international cooperation a cornerstone of its foreign policy, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed in February (at West Point, no less) that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” That certainly sounds like the “Iraq syndrome” -- or perhaps the “Iraq-Afghanistan syndrome” -- at work.
Much of this syndrome can be seen in the hesitant approach to the chaos in Libya -- in both official and public opinion. The U.S. government has applied military pressure only reluctantly and tentatively, ruling out the idea of sending in ground troops, and has made it a priority that any intervention be internationally approved. Trying to maintain a support role in Libya, the United States has proved quite willing, even determined, to let the Europeans take the military lead.
However, progress on some of my suggestions has been halting at best. Although the country does seem to be slouching toward at least a degree of humility, it may never really be able to bring itself to embrace the condition fully. Last September, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton maintained that “when the earth shakes or rivers overflow their banks, when pandemics rage or simmering tensions burst into violence, the world looks to us.” Self-infatuation is not easily extinguished.
Moreover, while there may be some downward pressure on defense spending, Gates and his successors will most likely continue to justify its unseemly bulk by conjuring up -- in our endlessly and always increasingly “dangerous world” -- an array of monsters and potential monsters and possibly potential monsters and crypto-monsters and monster look-alikes and monster wannabes. And Congress, with one eye always fixed on local defense contracts, will mostly continue to swallow, wallow in, or actively instigate the argument.
Actually, there is nothing really all that new about the post-Iraq unwillingness to engage militarily unless the combat environment is “permissive” or unless high-altitude bombing can be relied upon. There never has been much enthusiasm for sending Americans troops into hostile situations in recent decades absent a decided provocation like Pearl Harbor.
The Iraq war, then, might be considered something of an aberration. The neoconservative hawks in the George W. Bush administration had three peculiar things working for them in 2003. One was the memory of the splendid little walkover war of 1991 against Iraqi forces in Kuwait, the one that inspired the war’s chief architect, George H.W. Bush, to proclaim, “By God, we’ve licked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” (That was a mere two years before the U.S. humanitarian intervention in East Africa created the “Somalia syndrome.”) The second was the seemingly effortless success in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 -- an experience that only later turned sour. And the third was the fairly popular notion that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11.
Indeed, the Libyan venture, and the American role in it, seem to be following the pattern not of Iraq but of Kosovo in 1999. Boxed in by their own postured huffing and puffing against a demonized regime, American leaders have now reluctantly approved “kinetic military action” from a safe distance, supported by the much-underexamined hope that it will be quickly decisive. In Kosovo, it may be noted, the bombing buoyed domestic support for the previously unpopular demon-in-charge, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and the campaign had to be continued for months. Something similar seems to have already happened to Qaddafi’s popularity in many places in Libya. The other consequence in Kosovo was a monumental refugee crisis for which the administration and the world were utterly unprepared -- something that may be in progress in Libya.
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