The Magazine

The Iraq Syndrome

Jan 28, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 19 • By MAX BOOT
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It is not possible—at least not yet—to program a computer to predict all the consequences of adopting one foreign policy over another. Policymakers therefore tend to act with one eye cocked on the rearview mirror, making decisions based on what has worked and, especially, what has not worked in the past. A major foreign policy blunder can thus produce a lurch in the opposite direction—which often has equally dangerous, if different, consequences.

President Barack Obama and Sen. John Kerry

 The classic case of American policymakers overcompensating for past mistakes is the Vietnam war. President Lyndon Johnson and his aides had been seared by the experience of appeasement in the 1930s, when they were in their formative years. Determined not to allow “another Munich,” they instead became embroiled in a long, frustrating, costly, and ultimately losing war.

Today we are seeing another demonstration of the dangers of policymaking on the rebound. For Obama’s older appointees—including Chuck Hagel and John Kerry—Vietnam was the cauldron in which their dovish views of foreign policy were forged. The lessons they thought they learned in Vietnam were reinforced with the war in Iraq.

For those who don’t remember Vietnam, the Iraq war has allegedly shown the folly of military intervention, making them once bitten, twice shy about using force in the Middle East. As a result, the “light footprint” is becoming as much of an intellectual straitjacket for President Obama as the “domino theory” was for LBJ.

This is not to suggest that Obama is a pacifist. He has shown his willingness to use force—but generally only in antiseptic ways, such as the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, which all but eliminate risks on our side. (The Osama bin Laden raid was a more risky decision, but it was only a quick in-and-out raid, not a prolonged intervention.) The problem with this approach is that there are sharp limits to what drones, and even commandos, can accomplish. They can kill a few terrorist leaders, but they cannot prevent their replacement with equally malign successors. That would require a more prolonged intervention that Obama will not countenance—perhaps rightly.

The one brief spasm of somewhat more extensive military activity initiated by Obama occurred in Libya. But, like the drone strikes, it was designed in such a way as to limit American responsibility—no boots on the ground, and even in the air the allies were put in the lead as soon as possible in keeping with the administration’s “lead from behind” doctrine. Once Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown, the administration eschewed an active role in shaping a new, democratic Libya. 

The pleas of Libyan leaders for more aid to build up their armed forces and thereby end their reliance on militias were, for the most part, ignored. This fostered the chaotic conditions that led to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September. Moreover, in abandoning Libya, the administration effectively handed the keys to Qaddafi’s stockpile of NATO-grade small arms over to smugglers who have been channeling these weapons into Gaza. And it is a combination of Qaddafi’s weapons and former mercenaries that have turned much of Mali into a zone controlled by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

It is not only in post-Qaddafi Libya that the dangers of a hands-off policy are becoming apparent. Syria is even worse. It has been ravaged for nearly two years by a civil war that has already claimed at least 60,000 lives. As the fighting continues, the prospects of reestablishing stability in the wake of the violence diminish by the day. The most likely outcome now is a collapse of the country into different tribal and ethnic fiefdoms, with al Qaeda-linked extremists likely to exert significant sway. The conflict has already spilled over into neighboring states, sparking sectarian fighting in Lebanon between Shia and Sunnis, enticing Al Qaeda in Iraq to expand its operations across the border, and flooding Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan with refugees.

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