Libya and the Iraq syndrome
Does their caution in Libya show that Americans will make war no more?
Mar 3rd 2011 | from the print edition
“THE spectre of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula. It’s a proud day for America—and, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” That, at any rate, is what Bush the elder believed 20 years ago, shortly after the army he sent to Saudi Arabia booted Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But history likes a jest. As Barack Obama ponders whether force should be part of his response to Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, is a new syndrome—an Iraq syndrome, contracted in the same sands of Arabia by Bush the younger—one of the things staying Mr Obama’s hand?
Bloody wars beget caution. As after Korea, as after Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans battle-averse. In 2005 John Mueller, a professor of political science at the Ohio State University, predicted in Foreign Affairs that an “Iraq syndrome” would eventually make America more sceptical of unilateral military action, especially in places that presented no direct threat to it, and less inclined to dismiss Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners as wimps. “The United States may also become more inclined to seek international co-operation, sometimes even showing signs of humility.”
A bull’s eye for the professor. Against a backdrop of two wars and a surly economy, Mars is no longer ascendant in Mr Obama’s Washington. His drones may be zapping Taliban encampments in Pakistan, but Mr Obama always opposed the “dumb” war in Iraq, and much of his own party hates the war he calls necessary in Afghanistan. Having been elected as the anti-Bush, he needs another entanglement in the Middle East like he needs a hole in the head. So although Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, says that no option will be taken off the table, and America has sent warships nearer to Libya, the emphasis for the present is firmly on diplomacy. On Capitol Hill this week, Mrs Clinton talked about “using the combined assets of smart power” in Libya. In a reversal of the usual pattern, America is said to be pouring some cold water on heated talk in Europe, and especially in Britain, of NATO clearing Colonel Qaddafi’s aircraft from Libya’s skies.
To the prudent and the pacific, the Iraq syndrome may seem no bad thing. The younger Bush’s wars have claimed almost 6,000 American lives and drained the country’s finances. It would doubtless be better in future for America to embark on such adventures, if at all, with a clearer view of the costs, less faith in a military “cakewalk” and a more modest view of what force can achieve. But what if this salutary caution turns into an unwillingness to use force at all, even when it is called for by the national interest or on humanitarian grounds? And what if dangerous men come to believe that America will never fight? Saddam thought (and said) 20 years ago that after its losses in Vietnam, America would not risk war to rescue Kuwait. The alacrity with which Ronald Reagan scuttled from Lebanon after the marine barracks bombing in 1983 confirmed this belief that America’s aversion to casualties was the superpower’s Achilles heel.
As he soon discovered, Saddam was wrong about the Vietnam syndrome. No doubt the Iraq syndrome can be overstated too. During ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, and more than seven in Iraq, America has, after all, proved its extraordinary staying power: it takes a lot for Americans to accept defeat once they have joined battle in earnest. And the public appetite for new encounters, though it has dwindled, has not fallen to zero. Only 12% of respondents to this week’s Economist/YouGov poll favoured military intervention in Libya, but 38% supported a no-fly zone.
Still, a good deal of the risk-aversion is reflected at the top, where it matters most. At West Point last week, Bob Gates, the defence secretary who took over from Donald Rumsfeld in the Bush administration and whom Mr Obama kept on, said that “any future defence 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.” What little war talk Libya has aroused has come from the usual suspects: Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, for example, and Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq war. But even they propose, at most, arming Libya’s rebels or enforcing a no-fly zone.
It may be that America would have exercised the same caution in Libya even if it had not been for Iraq. Mrs Clinton may be right that outside support for the uprising would be counter-productive. But Iraq has surely coloured other decisions America has taken in recent years, not only on Mr Obama’s watch but also on his predecessor’s. Bill Clinton (before Iraq) used air power in the Balkans, but Mr Bush (after) did not intervene in Darfur even during the massacres by Sudan’s government-supported janjaweed militia. He refrained from military action against Iran’s nuclear installations, and by all accounts told Israel to hold back too.
The loop and the underlying constant
One interpretation of America’s attitude to war is that it is stuck in a loop. Successful ventures with low casualties (such as the first Gulf war or the early, misleading, stages of the Afghan war) breed hubris and further adventures. Costly engagements such as Korea, Vietnam and Iraq then breed caution.
That view is over-simple. Mr Mueller, the predictor of the Iraq syndrome, notes that apart from a mild rise in isolationism after the Vietnam war and a brief drop after the first Gulf war, changes in sentiment have been fairly modest. In general, Americans will tolerate high casualties to ward off what they see as direct threats, such as communism in Korea or Vietnam, or terrorism after 9/11, but almost none to police distant and seemingly perennially troubled countries, such as Somalia (where 18 American casualties in one firefight in 1993 put paid to America’s mission). What that means for the democrats of Libya remains to be seen.