AN OPINION PIECE
Crises have broken out around the world in the past few years. A revolution on the streets in Ukraine provoked a belligerent response from Russia. China is on the prowl in the seas to its east and south, shoving aside the smaller, weaker neighbors there and asserting its regional dominance. Muslims have been victimized and slaughtered by the dominant religion in Central Africa and Myanmar. West Asia has been in the throes of a general, region-wide upheaval since 2011, with mobs ousting dictatorships, sects massacring each other, civilians getting gassed and the Islamic State freaking everyone out. It’s natural to witness this mayhem and wonder when the good guy will step in to solve the problems. Where are the great powers when you need ’em? Where is America?
For the time being, America isn’t there. It has a hangover, a prolonged bout of illness stemming from a recent misadventure it never really got over.
In 2003, America under George Bush II invaded Iraq. It aimed to overthrow a terrible and obnoxious dictator and remake Iraq into a flourishing democracy, a beacon of hope and a model for the troubled countries around it. America hoped to tap into a latent thirst for democracy, freedom and opportunity among the stagnant Iraqis and present the world with an example of America’s awesome power and benign intentions.
As is probably pretty obvious by now, that’s only partly what happened. Instead, America fought a war in Iraq for 8 years, stirring up a pot of ethnic and sectarian animosities that had lain dormant under Saddam Hussein’s rule and shattering Iraq’s society. For the most part, the rest of the world was not on board, and howled criticism at every chance it got until the war was over (or rather, until Barack Obama succeeded Bush). Iraq’s resulting democracy turned out to be a joke, American soldiers committed atrocities, and weapons of mass destruction that might have justified the whole escapade were never found.
Also, the war spawned a huge (if mostly ineffectual) anti-war campaign in America, and it didn’t take long for the war’s popularity to sour. What had started as a glorious, short and awesomely amazing smackdown turned into a prolonged campaign against snipers and improvised bombs. America was mostly caught off-guard by the Sunni-Shi’a war, and the obvious ingratitude of the Iraqis for having been liberated from oppression rankled everyone.
This meant that when Obama took over from Bush, America dropped the war as fast as it could. Obama had been critical of the war, calling it “dumb,” and made it obvious he didn’t care about Iraq’s problems and only wanted to get rid of them. The American public mirrored this weariness and mostly regretted getting into the whole thing. Obama continued fighting the war in Afghanistan that predates the one in Iraq, but the Iraq War was over.
That was 3 years ago. It is a fresh memory in Americans’ minds, as well as in those of anyone who paid attention to the news last decade. It’s true that America’s army is a volunteer force and the percentage of the population that was affected by the war was very small. Its economic impact was fairly minimal. I doubt that terrorist activity was much affected. But frequent news coverage, angry international reaction, and the lack of real progress (the peace that settled over Iraq at the end was never entirely calm) made the war unbearable to many. And of course, the economic crash in 2008 spoiled the national appetite for costly, risky ventures in general.
All this is why America looks at the international scene today and groans. Obama is sure that the Iraq War means that blundering into international crises without a clear strategy is a recipe for disaster. Most Americans agree with him. Although it was apparent earlier, it became especially clear last year when Obama stupidly decided to attack Syria and politicians around the country got an earful from war-weary constituents determined to avoid another war.
The rest of the world sees America as an imperialist monster, unpredictable and threatening to international security. Some Americans are really like that (John McCain comes to mind) and see America as an international force for good, the world’s security guarantor and the one you gotta call for whatever calamity breaks out somewhere. But most are more pragmatic and see war as a tool to break out whenever American security is directly threatened — like most people do. And of course, most Americans want an old-fashioned war between armies where the opposing team is badly outgunned and has few tricks to pull. Basically, they want another World War II. High casualty numbers like those from that war aren’t inexcusable, but fighting prolonged wars without a clear end, a clear goal, and against nebulous insurgencies with lots of support from the locals — those are different.
We’ve seen this story before. America blundered into Vietnam 50 years ago under similar delusions and with similar results. The enemy won, international condemnation was fierce and unrelenting and America slipped into economic malaise. Until the Gulf War in 1991, Americans were similarly reluctant to get into another war. These things come in cycles, and it’s definitely conceivable that a future generation would regain an appetite for war and be eager to blow up foreigners in the name of justice and freedom. The Gulf War is instructive: it was short, ferocious and satisfying. Iraq was thrown out of Kuwait and its army crumbled. It made people feel good. If an opportunity for a war like that comes up again, it might rekindle America’s enthusiasm for war.
But (and this is probably something for another blog post of its own) America is also entering a long-term decline. Its military capability and international power are diminishing. The new world is a lot more complicated and hectic than that of World War II or the Cold War; multiple factions with conflicting loyalties and confusing agendas make the outcome of a lot of wars more murky. So-called “civilizational” loyalties play a part; not all countries are willing to accept that whatever America supports is right and any dictator is wrong. Old-fashioned wars between countries are pretty much gone; mostly they are civil wars and insurgencies, and these aren’t America’s strong suit.
I’ve focused a lot on America in this post, since it was the main force behind the Iraq War and it’s the superpower, but the Iraq Hangover afflicts other countries as well. Britain had a similar experience with Iraq and Britons have a similar disgust with picking unnecessary fights overseas. France has intervened in its old colonies in West Africa to crush fanatical Muslim movements there, with similarly murky results. Despite its obviously aggressive impulses, Russia hasn’t unleashed a full-blown invasion and occupation of Ukraine, Georgia, etc. Recent wars in Libya and Mesopotamia have led to a lot of reluctant groaning among the various countries involved.
It should be pretty easy to understand why putting “boots on the ground” in Syria is such a toxic proposal in America. It’s especially galling that the current war against the Islamic State involves Iraq; the war’s happening in the exact same place America was so badly humiliated last time. In the last war, America had to put its soldiers in harm’s way, pay for Iraq’s destruction and reconstruction, mediate between two fighting sects, and was constantly criticized and attacked for its intervention. When it left, Iraq howled at being abandoned. Why should it think the second time will be different?