The Ghost of Iraq

How the last war is haunting the Syria debate.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

American diplomats often bemoan that the United States is a misunderstood giant across the globe. Yet one need only look at this country’s twin approaches to Iraq and Syria to begin to understand why the rest of the world is consistently confused by what exactly makes America tick.

In Iraq, the United States literally scoured every corner of the country — before the invasion with United Nations inspectors, and after the invasion with U.S. service members — to try and find some trace, any trace, of weapons of mass destruction. Bush administration officials viewed claims of WMD as the linchpin upon which they would build the justification for invading Iraq in the post-9/11 environment. As Paul Wolfowitz, then a Pentagon official, told Vanity Fair, "we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason" for the invasion.

Any evidence suggesting that Iraq’s WMD threat was no longer credible was dismissed out of hand, and those promoting such views were dismissed as naïve or duplicitous. After U.N. inspectors were allowed back in the country, they reported in January 2003 that they had found no indication that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons or an active WMD program. The former head of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, later said that anyone hoping that the Iraq Survey Group would uncover WMDs in that country was "really delusional." And of course, Kay was correct. After Colin Powell’s dramatic presentation to the U.N. Security Council — "there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more" — and the subsequent invasion, the administration’s WMD claims became a chimera. In September 2004, the Survey Group issued its final report, saying that it had "not found evidence that Saddam possessed WMD stocks in 2003, but [there is] the possibility that some weapons existed in Iraq, although not of a militarily significant capability."

So what did the world learn from Iraq? The United States was willing to launch a major, disastrous, budget-busting war based even on the slimmest of evidence that country might both possess WMDs and be linked to terrorism.

Fast forward to today. The conflict in Syria has been grinding on with devastating effect for more than two years. More than 1.3 million people are refugees, and another 4.25 million have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Surely the United States would respond in a meaningful way to the mounting summary executions and the cascade of suffering. After all, President Obama had strongly defended the intervention in Libya in terms of the responsibility to protect innocent civilians, "To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action." But other than largely token actions, the administration has been content to stay on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, a position made more comfortable by Russian bullheadedness.

The plot further thickened with the announcement by Israeli Brigadier General Itai Baron, the head of research for the Israeli military, who declared of Syria, "To the best of our professional understanding, the regime used lethal chemical weapons against the militants over the past months." The White House followed that statement with its own carefully parsed assessment, "the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin." After all those futile searches in Iraq, the United States stumbled on to WMD pay-dirt right next door in Syria. And certainly, Syria had a much longer resume of state-sponsored terrorism than Iraq.

So would the United State leap into action? Not so much. Commentators, including Blake Hounshell on these pages, noted that Obama’s red lines on Syria and WMDs had always been murkier than they appeared at first glance, including when the president declared, "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus." The phrase "whole bunch" certainly leaves a lot of wiggle room. In a press conference, Obama both cautioned against a rush to judgment on Syria’s use of chemical weapons and indicated that he was leaning toward providing lethal military assistance to the rebels. Providing arms to Syrian rebels certainly amps up the pressure on the current regime, but it also risks looking like America is pouring gas on a conflict that it is trying to keep at arm’s length.

So what is the world learning from Syria? That Obama is not Bush, and that the American people are tired of fighting new wars. That no one, other than John McCain, has any appetite for getting involved in Syria. That Washington’s pursuit of WMDs really depends on the day, and that while allegations of Iraq’s WMDs dominated cable-news coverage for weeks, Syria’s actual use of chemical weapons on its own people seems to have generated little more than a several-day blip in media coverage.

But perhaps the real lesson that the United States should take from both Syria and Iraq is that a pendulum can swing too far. Bush stampeded the United States and the world into war in Iraq. Everyone knows the result. Now, not only the Obama administration, but almost every major human rights group, foreign capital, and U.N. official looks toward Damascus and sees only the potential for disaster. The choices are not good ones, but from the long view of history, the real question may be: Why didn’t the world act?

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