A decade later, Iraq war continues to cast long shadow over US role in Syria, Iran

A decade after U.S. forces first rolled into Iraq, sparking the longest American war since Vietnam, the conflict continues to cast a heavy shadow over potential U.S. military action in global hot spots like Syria and Iran. 

The Obama administration has made a conscious decision to pursue a diplomatic strategy, weighed heavily on economic and political sanctions, to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to end the bloody civil war between Syrian rebels and embattled President Bashar Assad. 

While the White House and Pentagon are adamant that all options — including military action — remain on the table, the administration’s reluctance to pursue an armed response aggressively in both countries has been colored by America’s experience in Iraq. 

Even after the last American units pulled out of Iraq last December, the war and its aftermath continue to be a stark reminder of the tremendous costs involved in deciding to put U.S. forces in harm’s way, in Syria, Iran or elsewhere, according to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). 

“I think there is a greater caution [to take action] as a result of [the] two wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Levin told reporters Monday. “I think that is part of it. I do not think it is the dominant part, but it is part of it.”

Washington and its allies are seeking “a good aftermath” in a post-Assad Syria, but “that is not always a given,” Levin said, referring to the violent insurgency that erupted in Iraq after U.S. and allied forces toppled Saddam Hussein. 

On the military side, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Levin’s comments on Monday, saying the administration’s reluctance to pursue military options against Assad is fueled in part by the “opaqueness” of the Syrian opposition. 

“I don’t think at this point I can see a military option that would create an understandable outcome,” Dempsey said. “And until I do, it will be my advice to proceed cautiously.”

The administration’s fear of igniting the same powder keg of sectarian strife in Syria that was sparked in Iraq has been fueled by growing doubt inside the White House that ending the Syrian civil war will have a positive outcome. 

“The more of a mess it becomes, the more we risk being drawn into a conflict that will not have a happy ending,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who added that the administration should have engaged with the opposition in Syria sooner. 

To Pletka, the problem is compounded by the fact that Obama administration officials have yet to fully grasp the lessons learned from the Iraq War and apply them to future conflicts. 

“The problem really is a failure to interpret the lessons of the Iraq war properly,” she said. 

That said, the Pentagon and the White House cannot guarantee to a war-weary American public that intervention in Syria or Iran will turn out any different than the Iraq war. 

“You don’t have the will by the U.S. government ... to say we’re going to repeat an experience that is arguably not going to be better than the Iraqi campaign,” Aram Nerguizian, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. 

A Gallup poll released on Monday found that 53 percent of respondents thought the Iraq war was a “mistake.” That was down from 63 percent in 2008, when the war had soured, but up from 23 percent when the war began.

Another Gallup poll in February showed the public’s view of U.S. military strength has dropped to its lowest point in at least two decades. 

Those numbers are due, in no small part, to the lasting effects of the Iraq war on the country, according to Nerguizian. 

“Americans are more than able and more than willing to pursue a just cause, at the same time a just cause ties into achieving a measurable outcome,” he said. “I think the assumption people are making ... is that [military action] probably won’t make much sense in Syria.”

That public weariness has undoubtedly bled into the White House’s calculations on how to deal with Syria, as the administration wrestles with bringing the war in Afghanistan to an end within the next year. 

“I think that the administration’s own weariness is even greater than the public’s,” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said, noting such conflicts have sapped much of President Obama’s political capital that could have been used to press the White House’s domestic agenda. 

“The Obama administration and president himself have recognized that these missions get in the way of having political and economic budgetary room for other kinds of initiatives,” O’Hanlon said. 

“It all boils down to that choice that the president first articulated in December 2009 at West Point: nation-building overseas versus nation-building at home,” he said.