At the start of the cycle, Washington feels compelled to act by a mixture of moral concerns and security interests. The subsequent intervention is often branded as a failure. A negative “syndrome” emerges, and Americans say “never again.” During the next emergency, the United States stands aside and civilians are slaughtered. Memories of the failed military intervention recede, guilt sets in, new security interests emerge, the U.S. cavalry gathers once more on the horizon—and the cycle begins anew. Throughout the process, people focus almost exclusively on the last big debacle, whether it was a failure of action, or a failure of inaction.
The cycle began after the end of the Cold War, when the international community rallied to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the Gulf War. Then, there was a brief period of optimism about building what President George H. W. Bush called a “new world order,” based on the rule of law, that would ensure global peace, security, and freedom. U.S. forces subsequently contributed to humanitarian interventions in northern Iraq in 1991 and Somalia in 1992. But the mission in Somalia unraveled after 18 U.S. soldiers died in the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu in October 1993. The cycle turned, and Americans grew wary of foreign wars. The Somalia syndrome stymied U.S. action in Bosnia, and helped to prevent any effort to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994. But over time, guilt about the “lessons of Bosnia” and the “lessons of Rwanda” encouraged a new phase of interventionism in Kosovo in 1999. After 9/11, the global war on terror dramatically energized the willingness to use force. Of course, security interests came first, and humanitarianism a distant second. But the new wave of interventionism crashed against the rocks of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Iraq syndrome produced a profound anti-interventionist mood for much of the past decade.
Critically, the tragedy in Syria began in the spring of 2011, at the extreme non-interventionist point of the cycle. Then, the United States was withdrawing its combat forces from Iraq, and would soon begin drawing down its troops in Afghanistan. While the United States did join the international humanitarian intervention in Libya in 2011, it “led from behind,” employing air power and rejecting the use of ground troops out of hand. Americans had almost zero appetite for more nation-building or further embroilment in foreign civil wars: In November 2011, approval for the war in Iraq hit an all-time low of 29 percent.
Obama’s perceptions of the Syrian civil war reflected the non-interventionist phase of the cycle. In his prominent piece in The Atlantic on Obama’s foreign policy, Jeffrey Goldberg concluded: “Syria, for Obama, represented a slope potentially as slippery as Iraq.” Obama admitted that if there had been no wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, he might have taken more risks in Syria. “[A]ny thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.”