The election-inspired departure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld notwithstanding, planning is actually one of the core competencies of the American military. Plans of varying degrees of sophistication exist for every scenario the prescient, bored or paranoid can imagine—from the need to invade Mexico should its government ever melt down, the imposition of military rule in a post-nuclear American city, to the implications of arsenic contamination in Chinese aquifers.
The military’s constellation of service academies and war colleges turn out a library of such contingency options annually. And so, perhaps, it should not be surprising that many of the brightest minds in the military and its think tanks recently have begun to ponder what many are calling “Iraq Syndrome,” what the world might be like should that benighted country prove immune much longer to U.S.-imposed stability.
The reference, of course, is to “Vietnam Syndrome,” the difficult to define but oft-cited malaise which seized the American military and policymakers after that brutal conflict. William Safire, the hawkish former Nixon aide and New York Times columnist, once defined Vietnam Syndrome as “that revulsion at the use of military power that afflicted our national psyche for decades after our defeat.” It stemmed from 50,000 American deaths on the battlefield, plus 3 million Vietnamese deaths, capped by a weary pullout in 1973 and then a lesson in geopolitical humility when Saigonfell to the Communist North anyway in 1975.
For decades to come—with a brief lifting of the fog during the 1991 Gulf War—the United States continued to build and perfect a military force aimed at containing Soviet advances around the world, but which had taken the unofficial decision never again to fight a guerrilla war. It kept that pledge by re treating quickly from quagmires in Lebanonin 1984, Somalia in 1993, and in its unwillingness to intervene forcefully in Rwanda, Bosnia and other civil conflicts. All this, of course, changed on 9/11.
With the outcome of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq very much in doubt, the Bush administration and its supporters reject the Iraq-Vietnam comparison and have from the start. In many ways they are right. The analogy, particularly as it was applied early in the war, falls short.
“The absence of a draft must be viewed as a central factor in the nation’s tolerance for what is happening in Iraq ,” says Dan Goure, a national security expert at the Lexington Institute. As a result, “no one blames the military for the situation in Iraq.” That draws a stark line between Iraqand the Vietnam experience, where resistance to the draft drove students in ever greater numbers to anti-war protests, and where misplaced anger directed at returning veterans is a lasting national shame.
There are other important differences. In Vietnam, the military complained politicians never allowed them to bring the fight to the enemy. By contrast, in Iraq, the Pentagon took a relatively free hand in Iraqto do as it saw fit to win the war. Nor is there a rival superpower to placate, or any equivalent to the thousand-year Vietnamese pedigree for battling much larger foes to a standstill. Iraq, frankly, always was the easier proposition (which is not to say either is easy).
Yet the military, whose most senior commanders came of age during the Vietnam War and lived through the morale- and budget-deflating late 1970s, already appear to be taking stock. As early as January 2005, analysts began worrying about what the post-Iraq military would look like. “After Iraq, it’ll be 1973 all over again,” wrote James Jay Carafano, a military analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There’ll be pressure to balance the budget on the back of defense cuts.” And this was written in the assumption that a “draw-down” would come only after a clear victory.
Such assumptions no longer flow so easily from the keyboards of experts in either political camp. In fact, it is widely conceded that the all-volunteer military designed directly as a result of the Vietnam experience is in trouble. While it has shown some resiliency, the Iraq War strained ground forces to the breaking point. The National Guard and Army Reserve, in particular, are showing the strain and finding it difficult to meet recruitment targets, even with (in some cases) six-figure bonus offers. Even the U.S. Marine Corps, with some units which have rotated through Afghanistan and Iraq four times since 9/11, cannot sustain the pace indefinitely. Worn-out equipment is not being replaced fast enough. Wives and children are growing weary and distant, morale is a growing problem, and signs of some desperation are surfacing as Army and Marine forces cannibalize Navy and Air Force units to fill their logistical positions.
While the professional military already is grappling with these is sues, the political reckoning came Tuesday when voters repudiated the Republican stranglehold on Washington. Now, a narrower political variant of “Iraq Syndrome” will be played out on the floor of Congress, made easier with Rumsfeld, the war’s chief architect, gone. “(T)he debate over ‘who lost Iraq ?’ has begun in earnest,” wrote military historian and author Andrew J. Bacevich in the Los Angeles Times last week.
“As was the case with Vietnam, this argument promises to be bitter and protracted. As with Vietnam, the outcome of the debate will have a large effect on the future course of U.S. policy.”
That said, Iraq’s long-term effect on military morale and American policy debates represents the local angle of the syndrome. Further afield, “Iraq Syndrome” translates into a world without the restraint America’s looming presence once imposed. Take Iran, for instance. Tehran acquiesced to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but now openly challenges American influence there, in Iraq, through Hezbollah and Hamas, in the wider Middle East and globally with its defiance of nuclear proliferation treaty obligations.
Similarly, North Korea, on the edge of collapse and starvation in 1997, announced itself as a nuclear power last month without concern for serious consequences. Lesser fish, emboldened by America’s distractions and riding the swollen river of anti-Americanism abroad, stir trouble on the periphery, including Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s reincarnated President-elect Daniel Ortega. As Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often says, “America cannot do a damn thing.”
No country benefited as much as China from America’s distraction in Iraq, however. Eyeball to eyeball with Washington in the spring of 2001 over the downing of an American spy plane, the Chinese found themselves in the intervening years with the luxury of focusing almost entirely on economic issues. China displaced the United States as the main trading partner of South Korea earlier this year, and of Japanlast month. Last week, China’s dollar reserves—the result of a trade imbalance which sends about $80 million from the U.S. to the Chinese treasury every hour—reached $1 trillion. Given this fact, the last thing China wants is war with an American superpower that appears bent on beating itself. Add two decades of “Iraq Syndrome,” and the war in Iraq may turn out as big a turning point in world history as President Bush promised, if not quite in the way he had intended.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.