Former President George W. Bush said "I refuse to be roped in" to the debate on Syria in an interview on Fox and Friends on Friday. Too late! Nearly every aspect of the Syria discussion — the strength of American intelligence, the role of Congress, the support from other countries, the long-term consequences — has been framed by the question of whether we're making the same mistakes we made in Iraq all over again. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday the government had reviewed intelligence on chemical attacks in Syria, and "I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment." On Thursday, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof argued that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "have left us with society-wide PTSD," making us too hesitant to use military force to stop the slaughter of Syrians.
The appeal of then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 was not just that he opposed the Iraq war, but that he'd opposed it from the beginning, calling it a "dumb war." The assumption was that in office, he would be smart enough to stop America from doing something so dumb again, even if almost the entire political and media world was pushing for it to happen. So it is not irrational that people are asking whether this Middle East intervention might be a repeat of history, given that one major difference between Syria and Iraq is that our ousting of a dictator caused a civil war in Iraq, while in Syria, one started without our assistance.
White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest vigorously denied there was any similarity between Iraq and Syria in a press conference on Thursday. "We are not talking about regime change here," Earnest said. "We are talking about enforcing an international norm" — that governments cannot use poison gas on civilians. The Bush administration struggled to come up with evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but "we don't have to search high and low for that evidence," he said. There's even evidence of a mass chemical attack, he said, on "social media." On Wednesday, President Obama told PBS that action in Syria will be "limited, tailored" — "Not another repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about."
You can't really blame Americans for having Iraq PTSD, since so many old friends from the Iraq war have been popping up to endorse a military strike in Syria or suggest that war-mongering isn't as easy as it looks. On Wednesday, Donald Rumsfeld emerged to say that President Obama hasn't made a compelling case for "what our national interest is" in going to war in Syria. "Bush's attack on Iraq was multilateral. [Obama], who attacked Bush for being a unilateralist, will make a unilateral attack on Syria," former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted on Thursday. On Thursday, Politico's Jim VandeHei imagined what Dick Cheney would say, in the form of a Saturday Night Live skit in which Obama faces all the arguments and problems of Bush's invasion, but with a liberal tint. (Weirdly, Dave Chappelle beat VandeHei to this concept by several years, though Chappelle had a somewhat different artistic vision.)
Reuters' David Rohde asks, "Has Iraq shackled American power?" He writes:
Publicly debating the difficult choices that the United States faces in Syria is vital. It may help exorcise the ghosts of Iraq. Or it may show how that war shackled American power forever.
But the Iraq experience will be embedded in the way we talk about war for a very long time. It's sort of like how a few Iraq veterans I know would say we needed to "go 'Nam in Iraq," which would inevitably devolve into a debate over whether we fully went 'Nam in 'Nam. Take, for example, how American intelligence officials used a reference to Iraq to express doubts about the intelligence on Syria, telling the Associated Press it was "no 'slam dunk.'" The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone reports this story was the result of an email investigative editor Ted Bridis sent to colleagues urging them to be skeptical of the administration's intelligence assessment so they would avoid making the same mistakes the media made in the run-up to the Iraq war. It seems reasonable to hope Obama does the same.
(Above, Obama at Camp Victory in Baghdad in 2009.)