The world certainly seemed to be coming apart at the seams this summer. Israel invaded the Gaza Strip. War escalated in Lebanon. Iran defied international mediators and accelerated its nuclear program, prompting speculation about pre-emptive strikes by Israel or the United States. North Korea defied the international community to reprocess nuclear fuel and add to what is generally acknowledged to be an existing stockpile of atom bombs.
Sectarian violence kills hundreds of civilians a week in Iraq and threatens unconstrained civil war, while the Iraqi government and the U.S. command acknowledge that several Iraqi cities, including much of Baghdad, are now beyond the government’s control.
Those who speculate that this is the beginning of World War III are exaggerating: Today’s world lacks the chain-ganged alliance structure of 1914 or the great power aggression of 1939, and each of this summer’s crises has powerful local roots that ties it to unrelated particulars of place or politics or ethnic demography.
Yet there is an important common thread in these nominally local crises all the same. That thread is the emerging effects of the Iraq Syndrome.
Americans have heard much about the Vietnam Syndrome, which is said to have been banished by the 1991 Gulf War: a weary, chastened America withdrawing from the world and lacking the self-confidence to use force even where the cause was justified. The trauma of Vietnam left the United States a hesitant and equivocal superpower, materially strong but politically weak and reluctant to defend its interests.
An important consequence of this was an increase in challenges to U.S. interests as rivals exploited the apparent power vacuum resulting from American retrenchment. For a decade after Vietnam, the Soviet Union responded with a major increase in adventurism in the developing world, expanding its influence from the horn of Africa to Central America.
Today, a similar dynamic is already under way. With the American public divided and increasingly war-weary, and the U.S. military tied down in Iraq, wearing out its equipment and testing its morale, a wide range of viruses that a healthy American foreign policy immune system normally suppresses are now gaining in virulence.
Before the Iraq Syndrome, American power exerted a major restraining influence on actors such as Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Rather than encouraging Hezbollah adventurism, Iran restrained it; after 9/11, for example, it is widely believed that Iranian emissaries confronted Hezbollah, demanding, effectively “We hope that wasn't you.”
Iran acquiesced in the American takedown of the Afghan regime on its eastern border. Syria cooperated with America’s war on terrorism and seemed willing to arrive at an accommodation with Washington. Even major powers such as Russia were more compliant, as Moscow accepted American military bases in neighboring former Soviet countries.
In 2006, by contrast, Hezbollah adventurism now gets the go-ahead from Tehran. An Iranian nuclear program that had crept forward at a rate designed to keep it under Western radar screens and safe from American retaliation now accelerates with apparent unconcern for the prospect of U.S. opposition, while Iran’s firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, concludes his speeches with the cry, “America cannot do a damn thing.”
At the same time, a North Korean nuclear program that accepted a modest buy-out in the 1990s now holds out for bigger payoffs while reprocessing nuclear fuel into bombs with impunity.
The Iraq Syndrome is likely to get worse before it gets better—and as it does, challenges such as Hezbollah, Iran and North Korea are likely to become more common. We are in for a season of trials that could create vexing challenges for U.S. foreign policy for a very long time to come.
Americans may yearn for a breathing space, but the Iraq Syndrome is more likely to yield a full-court press as maladies that could have been halted before Iraq now multiply instead.
The Vietnam Syndrome was ultimately overcome, and the Iraq Syndrome will be, too. But it has bequeathed America a burden that may take decades to overcome.
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