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.”