Part of Best Foreign Affairs Web Stories of 2011

The Iraq Syndrome Revisited

U.S. Intervention, From Kosovo to Libya

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.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis