Enter the Iraq syndrome

The first President Bush was exultant after driving Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in 1991. “By God,” he exclaimed, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

He was half right. America had clearly overcome its fear of using military force to fight evil. But now, the second President Bush has spawned the Iraq syndrome. And a growing number of experts believe this new paradigm will have a greater impact on American interests and policies than Vietnam ever did.

As former Secretary of Defense William Cohen told The Washington Post: “In terms of the consequences of failure, the stakes are much bigger than Vietnam.” Added Erin Simpson, a counterinsurgency expert at Harvard: “I think the hangover from this war will be at least as bad as Vietnam and (I) wouldn’t be surprised by a growing movement toward retrenchment and isolation.”

The phrase “Iraq syndrome” is not new. Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at King’s College in London, wrote a piece for the Post more than two years ago, saying that Bush’s legacy would be blighted by the idea, which he defined as the “nagging and sometimes paralyzing belief that any large-scale U.S. military intervention abroad is doomed to practical failure and moral iniquity.”



John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State, used the phrase as the title of an article in Foreign Affairs in late 2005. An authority on war and public opinion, Mueller noted that support for the Iraq war had declined much faster than support for missions in Korea and Vietnam. Half of all Americans had turned against Iraq by the time 1,500 soldiers had died; it took 20,000 casualties in Vietnam to provoke a comparable level of public dissatisfaction.

The key difference was why those soldiers died. Vietnam (and Korea) both reflected a broad national consensus that international communism directly threatened American interests and had to be contained. The rationales for invading Iraq – finding weapons of mass destruction, thwarting terrorists, creating democracy – had some initial appeal in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But those arguments never had the same resonance as anticommunism, and support for the war effort plummeted when many of Bush’s justifications proved to be false.

“This lower tolerance for casualties” in Iraq,” wrote Mueller, “is largely due to the fact that the American public places far less value on the stakes in Iraq than it did on those in Korea and Vietnam.”

Without a doubt the Iraq syndrome will be damaging to American interests. The United States does remain, for all its flaws, the “indispensable nation” (in Madeleine Albright’s phrase), and American power can still be a force for peace and good in the world. A period of “retrenchment and isolation” would be an understandable but dangerous reaction.

The emergence of an Iraq syndrome has a positive side, however, because it teaches a profound lesson: The worst sin in foreign policy is arrogance. Bush 41 succeeded in the Persian Gulf because his mission was quick and clear. Saddam invaded another country, and under the doctrine of containment, which had served the country well for almost 50 years, he had to be stopped. But Bush 41 also knew that marching on Baghdad and deposing Saddam would violate that doctrine (while triggering a civil war and creating chaos). He “kicked the Vietnam syndrome” because he acted with restraint and understood the limits of American power.

Bush 43 ignored those lessons from his own father. He acted without a sense of realism or history. As Lawrence Freedman notes, the current president tried “to transform a country, not just contain it.” That’s why the father achieved his goal and the son – in spectacularly misguided fashion – failed to achieve his.

So where does this leave the next president? How will the Iraq syndrome play out? Richard Haass, who served in both Bush administrations and now heads the Council on Foreign Relations, actually foresees a “salutary effect.” As the Iraq mission winds down, he wrote in Time, the next president will recover “American economic, diplomatic and military resources, all of which are in dire need of replenishment.” And he or she “will in some ways be liberated” to focus on other critical foreign-policy issues, from Palestinian-Israeli relations to Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iraq syndrome should not cause America to retreat from the world. But it should remind our leaders to remain humble and realistic. All wars are not bad, only fraudulent and arrogant ones. Bush the father is a better model than Bush the son.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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