Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy
The Flawed Logic That Produced the War Is Alive and Well
After the Vietnam War, a generation of U.S. leaders developed what became known as “Vietnam syndrome”—a pathological belief that public support for the use of force was too fleeting, and the U.S. military’s power too uncertain, for foreign military operations to be advisable. This syndrome bedeviled U.S. decision-making for years, but by the mid-1980s, its power had begun to wane. The United States’ swift victory in the Gulf War in 1991 would have seemed to banish it for good. But in reality, the success of Operation Desert Storm reinforced the idea that the public would tolerate only short, low-casualty conflicts.
Concerns about the Vietnam syndrome returned as U.S. President George W. Bush prepared to invade Iraq in 2003. Bush went ahead anyway, and the resulting war was the most significant and costly that the United States had conducted since the 1970s. Although the invasion initially enjoyed considerable public support, its popularity waned when it did not go as planned. Within a few years, the Bush administration faced the very real prospect of losing, and only the politically controversial move of changing the strategy and surging more troops and resources into Iraq altered the trajectory of the war. Bush handed over to his successor, U.S. President Barack Obama, an Iraq war that was more promising than it had been in 2006 but still a far cry from the rosy prewar predictions.
Two decades after the initial invasion, Iraq remains a security project in progress. Compared with the United States’ outright defeat in Afghanistan, the result of the U.S. campaign in Iraq looks like a modest success. It still might be possible to achieve some of the goals of the war—an Iraq that can govern and defend itself and that is an ally in the war against terrorists—albeit at a tragically high price. But compared with the expectations of the war’s advocates, Iraq looks like a fiasco in the mold of Vietnam. And the shock has had the same result: policymakers have developed Iraq syndrome and now believe that the American public has no stomach for military operations conducted on foreign soil.
Iraq syndrome holds that Americans are casualty-phobic: they will support a military operation only if the cost in American lives is minimal. As a consequence, U.S. policymakers who wish to use force must fight as bloodlessly as possible and be quick to abandon their commitments if the adversary proves able to fight back and kill U.S. soldiers. The politically expedient position, in a world afflicted by Iraq syndrome, is a quasi-isolationist one, since the public is not willing to underwrite the costs of lasting international commitments.
But as prevalent as it is among politicians, Iraq syndrome does not appear to be as widespread among the broader public. American voters are not nearly as allergic to military force as their leaders think. In fact, the public will continue to adequately support a military mission even as its costs mount, provided that the war seems winnable. That means policymakers do not need to abandon a national security commitment as soon as the costs start to mount, provided that the leaders are pursuing a strategy that will lead to success. Leaders should pay more attention to prospects for good outcomes rather than try for cost-free commitments, an impossible standard that the public does not demand and that only hobbles the United States in a dangerous world.
There is little doubt that Iraq syndrome is common in policymaking circles. At key junctures, U.S. presidents have deliberately avoided making decisions similar to those made in Iraq. Obama avoided meaningful intervention in the Syrian civil war, for instance, despite the fact that the humanitarian costs of staying on the sidelines arguably dwarfed the costs of invading Iraq. He also delayed taking forceful action until the very last moment against the Islamic State, or ISIS, a formidable terrorist organization that quickly eclipsed al Qaeda and threatened to plunge the entire Middle East into chaos in 2015 and 2016.
Similarly, U.S. President Donald Trump, despite speaking in bellicose terms about North Korea, Iran, and ISIS, was careful to avoid direct confrontations with the first two and quick to declare victory, and then curtail operations, against the third. U.S. President Joe Biden likewise has been sensitive to criticism that U.S. support of Ukraine could devolve into an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces “like Iraq,” and he has been scrupulous about limiting U.S. involvement to intelligence sharing and the provision of arms. In every political debate since the 2004 presidential election, doves have had the advantage, ever ready to argue that any show of U.S. military might could become another Iraq.
But if politicians and policymakers are clearly afflicted, there is less evidence that the public at large has caught Iraq syndrome. For starters, even during the Iraq war, the public was not casualty-phobic. Contrary to the expectations of many, the U.S. public largely made reasoned and reasonable assessments of the war. To be sure, public support dropped somewhat as the death toll mounted, but such fluctuations depended more on expectations of the ultimate outcome of the war. When it looked as if the United States might win, the public was willing to continue the war. When it looked as if the United States might lose, casualties proved far more corrosive to public support. Even after public opinion shifted and most Americans began to see the invasion as a mistake, there were no widespread demands for an abrupt withdrawal. The Republican Party lost seats in the 2006 midterm elections in part because of Iraq, but Bush was nonetheless able to cobble together sufficient political support to implement the surge.
Polling suggests that the U.S. public makes reasoned trade-offs when deciding whether to support the use of force.
The public also proved surprisingly tolerant of continued U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan during Obama’s term. Although he campaigned against the war, Obama swiftly dropped his plan to immediately abandon Iraq, initially following the Bush-designed timetable for withdrawal instead. Obama eventually abandoned this timetable, deciding to leave Iraq altogether in 2012 rather than keep a small force there as originally planned. But he paid only a small political price when he reversed course yet again and sent combat troops back to Iraq to help fight ISIS in 2014. For his part, Trump faced no meaningful public pressure to stop the counter-ISIS campaign and received relatively little public credit for setting in motion the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
Polling suggests that rather than reflexively opposing war, the U.S. public makes reasoned trade-offs when deciding whether to support the use of force. Polls taken before and after the Iraq war show that the public’s willingness to pay the human cost of war depends on both the importance of the mission for U.S. security and the likelihood that the mission will succeed. For example, in November 2021, we replicated a survey experiment that we initially conducted in 2004, which asked participants whether they would support a hypothetical conflict based on information supplied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 2021, as in 2004, both the likely number of casualties and the prospects of success had a significant impact on support for the hypothetical mission, suggesting that the U.S. public takes a rational approach to weighing the costs and benefits of using military force.
Trump’s popularity may have stemmed in part from anti-Iraq sentiment within the Republican Party. But isolationism has not firmly gripped the broader public, which remains generally internationalist in orientation with a high level of confidence in the military, particularly in comparison with other institutions. According to a 2023 Gallup survey, 65 percent of Americans felt that the United States should take a leading or major role in world affairs—only a small decline from February 2001, when 73 percent of Americans held that opinion.
Moreover, the U.S. public continues to believe that the nation’s armed forces are exceptional. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 51 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that the United States has the strongest military in the world, the same proportion that agreed in 2000. Although popular confidence in nearly every public institution has declined over the past several decades, confidence in the U.S. military remains high. A separate Gallup poll in 2022 showed that 64 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a lot” of confidence in the U.S. military. This is slightly lower than the levels of confidence Americans expressed in the years after 9/11 but similar to the levels they expressed in the 1990s and notably higher than those they reported in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some recent polls show a decline in confidence among Republicans, especially following Trump’s attacks on senior military figures and widespread claims that U.S. forces have gone “woke.” Yet the debate between pro-defense hawks and antimilitary isolationists within the Republican Party has hardly been settled in the latter’s favor. There is little evidence that Iraq turned the U.S. public away from international affairs or undermined its confidence in the use of force abroad.
The Iraq war was a sea change for many who were directly affected by the conflict—both inside and outside the United States. But it appears to have had less of an impact on the broader U.S. public, which remains solidly internationalist, confident in the nation’s military power and institutions, and able to make reasoned trade-offs between the likely costs (especially human cost) and potential security benefits of intervention, as well as the likelihood of success.
Politicians hoping to win over the public with isolationist platforms may be making a losing bet. True, U.S. policymakers have responded to frustrations in Iraq in a similar way that they responded to failure in Vietnam almost five decades ago: they have continued to engage in active military interventions but avoided large-scale ground deployments. Iraq syndrome is undoubtedly real, but it may be felt more intensely among elites than among the public. And just as U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush found it possible to rally the public behind military interventions even in the wake of Vietnam, Biden or his successors may find the public similarly persuadable after Iraq. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
And How the Iraq War Taught Me About the Limits of American Power