Andrew Bacevich and many others, in contrast, espy in the experience since World War II the rise of what he calls a “new American militarism.” However it seems to me that such analysis puts too much weight on the temporary successes in the wake of 9/11 of the neoconservative movement in the George W. Bush administration.
With the consequent sour experience in Iraq and in Afghanistan, we seem to be witnessing the re-emergence of a perspective on intervening in overseas conflicts somewhat like the one that prevailed before 9/11, and future policy seems likely to be carried out under the weight of what might be called “The Iraq Syndrome.”
A “syndrome” can be defined as a general, even visceral, unwillingness, in the aftermath of a bad experience, to do anything that might lead to a repetition. And under the impetus of the Iraq Syndrome such once-fashionable (and sometimes self-infatuated) expressions as unilateralism, preemption, preventive war, and indispensable-nationhood have already picked up a patina of quaintness. As part of the process, there is growing skepticism about the notions that the United States should take unilateral military action to correct situations or overthrow regimes it considers reprehensible but that present no immediate threat to it, that it can and should forcibly bring democracy to other nations not now so blessed, that it has the duty to rid the world of evil, that having by far the largest defense budget in the world is necessary and broadly beneficial, that international cooperation is of only very limited value, and that Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners are naive and decadent wimps.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed in February 2010 (at West Point, no less) that “any future defense 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,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” That certainly sounds like the Iraq or (perhaps better) the Iraq-Afghanistan Syndrome at work.
However, there is nothing really new in Gates’ statement and in the concomitant, post-Iraq unwillingness to engage militarily only when the environment is “permissive” or when high altitude bombing can be relied upon. There has never been much enthusiasm for sending Americans troops into hostile situations in recent decades—or even longer—unless there was a decided provocation like Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
The syndrome can be seen at work in the hesitant approach to the chaos in Libya. The U.S. government applied military pressure only reluctantly and tentatively, ruling out the idea of sending in ground troops, and made it a priority that any intervention be internationally approved. Thus, the Libyan venture, and the American role in it, has followed the pattern not of Iraq, but of Kosovo in 1999. Boxed in by their own postured huffing and puffing against a demonized regime, American leaders reluctantly approved “kinetic military action” from a safe distance, supported by the much-underexamined hope that this might be quickly decisive.
The growth of the syndrome also shows up in public opinion data. Beginning in 1945, a key poll question about engagement in foreign affairs has been posed periodically: “Do you think it would be best for the future of this country if we take an active part in world affairs, or if we stayed out of world affairs?” After the campaign in Kosovo, Americans became less keen on intervention—an interesting reaction, since the campaign was something of a success at least in its own terms—and those choosing the “stay out” option rose to near all-time high of 34 percent. Right after 9/11, the figure dropped to a low of 14 percent, and after a brief rise, declined again to 14 percent at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. Since that time, however, the “stay out” option has become considerably more popular, so that by 2006, the last time the question was asked, fully 38 percent embraced the sentiment—the highest ever registered.
This does not necessarily mean that old-fashioned isolationism is emerging; the United States is unlikely to withdraw from participation in the global economy, disengage from international political organizations, or cease to be a citizen of the world community. But it could well be fertile ground for an Iraq Syndrome, or Iraq-Afghanistan Syndrome, to flourish.
JOHN MUELLER is Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University. He is the author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al Qaeda (2010) and the author, with Mark Stewart, of Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Costs and Benefits of Homeland Security (2011).