In March 1991, just after his victory in the Persian Gulf War, an ebullient President George H.W. Bush told a group of state legislators, "The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.... By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."
Maybe not. The "Vietnam syndrome" meant that every time the possibility of military intervention came up, the question was, "Is this another Vietnam?" Now an "Iraq syndrome" may be emerging. And with it comes the question, "Is this another Iraq?"
Disillusionment with the Iraq war is certainly intensifying. As of early April, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans thought it was a mistake for the United States to send troops to Iraq. Four months after Iraq's December election, that country still has no government. And more than three-quarters of the American people think that a civil war is now under way in Iraq, according to this month's CBS News poll.
That kind of disillusionment can also intensify the public's normal aversion to military intervention. Some evidence suggests that that's happening now. In the USA Today/Gallup poll, nearly half of respondents, 46 percent, endorsed the view that "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own."
It doesn't exactly sound like the public is ready to support the Bush Doctrine as the president defined it in his second Inaugural Address: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
So, where does that leave the United States in terms of Iran's nuclear program? The Bush administration does not rule out the use of force, yet doesn't exactly embrace it either. "The president has indicated his concern about [Iran], but it is simply not useful to get into fantasyland," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week.
If Iran continues to produce material that could be used to make nuclear weapons, would the American public support military action? The answer in this month's Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll is a cautious yes, 48 percent to 40 percent. But 40 percent of respondents said the war in Iraq has made them less supportive of U.S. military action against Iran.
Iran presents a different problem from Iraq. Iran is openly defiant about its nuclear program, although its official position, as stated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is, "Our nuclear technology serves peaceful purposes." Moreover, other countries share the United States' concern about Iran. The European Union took the initiative in negotiating with Iran for a cessation of its nuclear activities, but the negotiations failed.
"Most of the world agrees with us that Iran has violated a number of its nonproliferation commitments," observed Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "Most countries are on record as being concerned with Iran's nuclear ambitions." Does that mean they will back the United States if it gets tough with Iran? There, too, the Iraq experience may impose an added cost. In O'Hanlon's view, "The real issue is whether countries like China and Russia really want to support us, or do they prefer to see the United States taken down a peg?"
O'Hanlon contends that the Iraq syndrome, like the Vietnam syndrome, is not so much a response to a specific experience as a consistent reality of American politics. "I think Americans are fairly nervous about using force of any type in any circumstances, and there tends to be a high threshold on supporting such uses of force," he said. "That, I think, is the fundamental reason why we're not at war anywhere else right now, as opposed to any Iraq syndrome."
The clearest evidence of an Iraq syndrome comes from responses to a question in the L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll: "Do you trust George W. Bush to make the right decision about whether we should go to war with Iran?" A majority of Americans, 54 percent, said they don't.
That sounds like the real Iraq syndrome: a deepening credibility gap for this president.