Ghosts of Iraq

Both sides of the Syria intervention debate are haunted by the last big war.

One of the apparent subtexts in the contemporary debate over what the United States ought to be doing in Syria is the interest in relitigating the Iraq War. Thus, some of the arguments that are being advanced rely less on actual conditions on the ground in Syria and have just as much to do with justifying the stance taken on Iraq ten years ago.

For the anti-interventionists on both the right and on the left, the geopolitical disaster that unfolded in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion was entirely foreknowable and predictable, yet was ignored by a bipartisan foreign-policy consensus enamored by the temptation of deposing an anti-American dictator and creating a pro-American democratic state in its stead. Instead, after the initial military victory that decapitated Saddam Hussein's regime, the challenges of postwar Iraq clearly exposed the limits of U.S. power to reshape societies or engage in whole-scale transformation. It confirmed the strength of ethnic and religious identities as powerful motivators for people to engage in violence and discredited the notion of people eagerly awaiting liberation in order to begin the process of constructing a liberal democracy.

Because Syria so resembles Iraq—down to the fact that it too is a long-standing Baathist dictatorship and has similar ethno-sectarian divisions—the argument is that any U.S. involvement in Syria will take it down the same path of failure as occurred in Iraq. For some conservative anti-interventionists, the trajectory of Libya following the initial heady enthusiasm that followed in the wake of Muammar Qaddafi's overthrow—culminating in the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his party in Benghazi—shows that even a limited U.S. intervention restricted only to airpower and special forces will have negative and deleterious effects.

Many of those strongly in favor of the United States taking action in Syria, in contrast, were supporters of the Iraq war (at least until, for some on the Democratic side of the aisle, conditions deteriorated in the aftermath of the successful march on Baghdad). Some concern has been expressed that failures in Iraq should not be used to justify non-intervention in future conflicts. In other words, the wrong lesson was learned. Removing Saddam Hussein and trying to create a democratic successor state was not in and of itself a bad idea—it was how it was executed. Having learned from those mistakes, the United States would be in a better position to avoid those pitfalls in Syria. If the dream of creating a democratic, pro-Western state on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates was not achieved, at least the concept—that U.S. power, properly wielded, could bring about the positive transformation of a Middle Eastern state—could be validated in an intervention in Syria.

For pro-Iraq war Democrats, this would also strengthen their claim that the Iraq war was "bungled" by an inept Republican administration (while Kosovo and Libya showed how Democrats engaged in "successful" interventions). Republicans might look askance at anything which might burnish the credentials of the Obama administration but a Syria intervention would, in the end, be used as confirmation that the instincts of the Bush administration—that American power could be harnessed in a vast transformative project in the Middle East—were in fact correct (and strengthen the narrative so distasteful to some Democrats that, in the end, Barack Obama has tended to be the continuator of policies started by George W. Bush).

Barack Obama started his national political career by trumpeting many of the arguments made by the anti-interventionists in the run-up to the Iraq War. His current secretary of defense shows no desire for the United States to become more involved in Syria. And yet the siren song of American power as a force for good resounds not only among neoconservatives but also animates many liberal internationalists and proponents of humanitarian intervention. In the Libya debate, the scales tipped in favor of a limited intervention against the arguments of those who, citing Iraq, counseled against involvement. Yet, in assessing whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria—and who used them—the Obama administration has taken a very cautious approach, well aware of the spectre of Iraq and past accusations of WMD being proven incorrect.

It was often said that the first Gulf War in 1990-91 exorcised the ghost of Vietnam. Today, the ghost of Iraq is alive and well, prowling the halls and counsels of government. Some want that ghost to be heeded and for the United States to stay out of Syria. Others argue that decisive action is needed to banish that apparition once and for all. How this plays out in the coming weeks remains to be seen.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.