American foreign policy a decade after Operation Iraqi Freedom

On Monday I blogged that Operation Iraqi Freedom didn't affect the international system all that much. What about the second image, however? Ten years after Operation Iraqi Freedom, are there lasting effects on American foreign policy?  

The answer here seems to be "yes." Intriguingly enough, the people making this argument the loudest are neoconservatives. William Kristol argued that "war weariness" was affecting American foreign policy decision-making:  

Now we’re weary again. And there are many politicians all too willing to seek power and popularity by encouraging weariness rather than point out its perils. Foremost among those politicians is our current president. It’s hard to blame the American people for some degree of war weariness when their president downplays threats and is eager to shirk international responsibilities.

[Note to Kristol: When you or anyone else inside the Beltway says "war weariness," to the rest of the country it means either "prudence" or "a healthy distrust of the claims of Beltway advocates for the use of force."] 

Here's the thing: Deep down, the American people are pretty realist. The legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom is that this realist consensus has cemented itself further in the American psyche. The American public has an aversion to using force unless the national interest is at stake, and a deep aversion to using force to do things like promote democracy or human rights. The current GOP civil war on the use of force demonstrates the extent to which this sentiment has become a bipartisan phenomenon. Indeed, if the GOP doesn't alter its rhetoric on the use of force, it will continue to bleed support from young voters.

Public opinion does not always form a powerful constraint on American foreign policy, but one of the biggest legacies of Iraq is that public attitudes about the use of force have imposed serious constraints on the United States. Sure, an administration can use force as in Libya, but now it needs multilateral support and a light footprint in order to avoid a public backlash. The curel irony of this for neoconservatives is that as secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld wanted a light footprint in the Iraq invasion, reflecting his own faith in the revolution in military affairs. By going in too light, however, Rumsfeld tarnished the RMA and the notion of using ground troops in anything but an overwhelming capacity. 

Last year I closed out an essay in Policy Review with the following: 

[T]he long, draining conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll on public attitudes about U.S. leadership in the world, as well as the use of force. In 2009 Pew found isolationist sentiments had reached an all-time high in the United States. A January 2012 pipa poll found that Americans strongly prefer cutting defense spending compared to either Medicare or Social Security. According to a January 2012 Pew survey, "Defending against terrorism and strengthening the military are given less priority today than over the course of the past decade." Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a December 2011 cnn poll approved of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. The growth of unrest in that country since the U.S. withdrawal has done nothing to alter public attitudes on the matter — which is why Republican challengers to Obama have been rather reticent to talk about it. By the beginning of 2012, majorities opposed the war in Afghanistan and favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces as soon as possible. On Iran, Americans strongly prefer economic and diplomatic action to military statecraft even as tensions escalate in the Persian Gulf.

As Libya demonstrated, presidents still have some latitude when choosing to use force. The political risks for presidents to invest political capital into foreign affairs have clearly increased, however. Unless foreign interventions yield immediate, tangible results, Americans will view them as distracting from problems at home. If far-flung military interventions bog down, public support will evaporate. This will make any president regardless of ideology more risk-averse about projecting military power and persisting with it should difficulties arise. For strategic culture, this means a reversion back to the days of the Powell Doctrine and a continued appreciation for economic coercion.

It took a generation and the end of the Cold War for the lessons of Vietnam to fade away. I'd wager that it will take at least a generation for the legacy effects of the Iraq War. 

Indeed, in American history, the war that Operation Iraqi Freedom reminds me of isn't Vietnam -- it's the War of 1812. That was another war of choice that was launched in no small part because of War Hawks in the halls of Congress. It went disastrously for the United States save the Battle of New Orleans, which allowed politicians to put a gloss of victory on an otherwise calamitous conflict. The long-term political effects on some of the War Hawks were pretty severe however (see:  John C. Calhoun). 

Operation Iraqi Freedom's effects on the international system were minor at best. The effects on American foreign policy, however, are significant and will be with us for some time to come. 


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