Last night I finally got around to watching No End in Sight, the 2007 film that is widely regarded as the definitive documentary on the Iraq War. I had always thought that the title of that film was rather ironic. It was released at a moment when the Iraq War had been the dominant issue in public discourse for the past four years. Shortly after its release, however, the Obama-Clinton Democratic primary battle and the economic meltdown began to push the war off the front pages. “The end,” as it turned out, was just around the corner – if not in reality, then at least in terms of the war’s prominence in the American consciousness.
Or at least that was how I thought about the Iraq War’s legacy up until a couple of months ago, when chatter about potential American military action against Syria began in earnest. Public sentiment regarding a possible intervention was overwhelmingly negative, with only 9% of Americans telling Reuters/Ipsos pollsters that they supported military action. The lopsided nature of these results led me to question my previous assumption that the Iraq War had largely faded from American minds. Rather, it seems that America has been either blessed or cursed (depending on your point of view) with “The Iraq Syndrome.”
The Iraq Syndrome is derivative not of The China Syndrome but of the Vietnam Syndrome. The Vietnam Syndrome refers to an alleged unwillingness of American political leaders to involve the United States in foreign wars or contentious international issues in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the associated lack of support for such ventures among the American public. Having been burned in Vietnam, there was little appetite for another round of foreign intervention and little trust in political or military officials who would suggest such interventions. From my perspective, there seems to be a good bit of truth in the “Vietnam Syndrome” hypothesis. Even Ronald Reagan, hardly a man with a reputation as a peacenik, may have exhibited the effects of the Vietnam Syndrome. In 1983, suicide bombers attacked military barracks in Lebanon and killed 241 American service members who were part of a multinational force attempting to serve as peacekeepers in the ongoing Lebanese Civil War. Rather than respond to the bombings with even heavier American involvement in Lebanon in hopes of crushing the extremists, Reagan ultimately withdraw American forces from the country.
The generally successful (from an American perspective) outcome of the 1991 Gulf War led then-President George H. W. Bush to proclaim “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!” Perhaps we had. It certainly seems plausible to believe that popular memories of the short, easy victory in the 1991 Gulf War might have led political leaders and the American public to be more supportive of the 2003 Iraq War than they might otherwise have been. The combination of happy memories of the 1991 Gulf War and still-simmering outrage at the 9/11 attacks produced a willingness to engage internationally that propelled the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But by 2006 and 2007, as conditions in post-war Iraq deteriorated, the American public turned against the war and ultimately elected a President whose victory in the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton is often attributed to his opposition to the Iraq War from the beginning, as opposed to Clinton’s vote in the Senate to authorize the war. When President Obama then began to hint at a possible intervention in Syria, the emphatic public rejection of the idea suggested that the Iraq Syndrome is still alive and well. It may have helped carry Obama to the White House, but when Obama appeared to change his stripes regarding foreign intervention, the public refused to change with him.
So is the Iraq Syndrome good for America? As someone who opposed the 2003 Iraq War from the beginning, I tend to lean in the direction of “yes.” But it seems clear that the Iraq Syndrome could also lead America to turn a blind eye to some truly horrid violations of human rights. Even as I thought to myself that an intervention in Syria was probably not in the national interest, I couldn’t ignore the thorny moral questions involved in turning my back on the suffering of Syrian citizens. Then I would remind myself that American intervention was hardly guaranteed to ultimately make Syrians’ lives better. As much as I went back and forth in my mind as I pondered the Syria question, I would ultimately conclude that American intervention would be a mistake. The Iraq Syndrome had carried the day again.