There are many critics of the flaws in the U.S. approach to the “War on Terror” and the merits of our interventionist war in Iraq.  Much of the criticism predictably comes from liberals, but the most important, in challenging the status quo within a Republican administration, comes from traditional conservatives and libertarians asking why a reputedly conservative White House and conservative-dominated Congress have pursued Wilsonian liberal internationalist goals—interventionism, preemption, and expanded global commitments.  Such criticism has centered on the President’s neoconservative advisors, who have played major roles in shaping and implementing these policies.  Genuine conservatives disdain the neocons’ pseudoconservative attributes, which stem from their liberal Democratic heritage, their acceptance of spendthrift big government, and their interventionist affinity for the legacy of Wilsonianism and Stimsonianism in international affairs.  Compounding the irony is the way in which a majority of liberal critics, aligned with the Democratic Party in opposition to the Bush administration’s hegemonic policies, treat these criticisms as the result of archconservatism run amok, which aggravates traditional conservatives and libertarians all the more.  That frustration motivates their quest to clarify what warrants the label “conservative” in U.S. foreign and defense policies.

These efforts on the part of genuine conservatives have had little impact.  While it is true that Americans are finally questioning the wisdom of waging the war in Iraq, most of that debate centers on how to rectify a questionable decision by improving the ways in which the war is being waged and persuading the American public that the tasks can be accomplished satisfactorily and at an acceptable price.  The Republican and Democratic Party establishments are trying to convince the public that their party is more capable of achieving Wilsonian internationalist goals by staying the interventionist course.  While a handful of prominent opponents of the war in both parties advocate rapid disengagement, most of the war’s opponents favor a far more gradualist approach.  This political debate, with escalating tensions in Congress, has been provoked by the increasing number of opinion polls indicating American discontent over the nature of the Iraq war, the insufficient planning for both the war and its anticipated postwar nation building and democratization, and how the war can be resolved in a manner that can be labeled “successful.”  Consequently, the current level of our national dialogue is far from the truly raucous nature of the debate provoked during the latter stages of the Vietnam War.

If the principles behind today’s “stay the course” approach had been in place since the early 1970’s, the United States would still be fighting the Vietnam War—with staggering numbers of casualties.  In practice, of course, the decision to alter our course in Vietnam followed a societal upheaval provoked by the debate over the many costs of that war, its negative salience to the Cold War, and the impact it was having on American willingness to remain engaged as a leader of the free world.  In short, U.S. societal resolve to stay the course in Southeast Asia was unraveling because of the catastrophic number of dead draftees;  this led many Americans to conclude that the Vietnam War was unnecessary for genuine U.S. national defense.

U.S. foreign and defense policies bore the weight of the so-called Vietnam Syndrome for many years.  President George H.W. Bush contended that his interventionist rescue of Kuwait signified the end of the constraints imposed by the Vietnam Syndrome.  Given the Clinton administration’s various interventionist exploits and the current Bush administration’s brand of neocon-inspired hawkish internationalism, a case can be made that many Americans agree that the Vietnam Syndrome has become far less relevant today.  This is attributable, in part, to generational change and to Americans’ feeble historical consciousness.  If the current Iraq war inflicted a number of casualties on par with Vietnam—perhaps necessitating revival of a draft that cut across all social classes—and if popular reactions to those casualties and the pressures put on U.S. society were to become similar to those of the Vietnam era, we might witness the onset of an “Iraq Syndrome.”  Fortunately, that has not been the case—which is not surprising, in light of the many Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian affairs pundits who have pointed out the major differences in the roots of these two wars, geopolitical variances, and how U.S war-fighting capabilities have evolved over the intervening years.  However, if the situation in Iraq were to drag on and casualties were to mount tremendously, an Iraq Syndrome could yet materialize, unleashing a domestic upheaval within the United States.  Cindy Sheehan and her very liberal activist cohorts could form the basis of a mass movement capable of creating an abrupt exit from Iraq reminiscent of Vietnam.  For better or worse, this is very unlikely to happen, because enough U.S. officials learned harsh lessons from back then about what to do, and what not to do.

Echoes of the United States’ profound setback in Vietnam haunt them and intensify their frequently stated resolve not to “cut and run.”  While this mind-set has inherent systemic logic, it also commits its adherents to both good policies that are not working out as planned and fatally flawed interventionist policies that are unraveling as critics predicted.  This is well illustrated by President Bush’s deteriorating opinion-poll ratings and the White House’s harsh counterattacks on their Democratic critics for “sabotaging” the war effort.  These developments perversely add to the unraveling process.

Despite the similarities between the past Vietnam Syndrome and a potential Iraq Syndrome, it is interesting that the anxieties provoked by those possible linkages may help to set the stage for a constructive catastrophe.  The worse things become in Iraq, or elsewhere in the expanding U.S. empire, the more the United States stretches thin her territorial national defense.  The preemptive Bush Doctrine, coupled with the effects our “revolution in military affairs” has on American societal values, distracts U.S. national-security policy from its truly national focus.  As problems arise in Iraq or in other potential foreign entanglements—elsewhere in the Middle East, Central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa come to mind—the more the nature of the national debate is likely to shift toward a serious reassessment of the utterly unsound structure of U.S. foreign and defense policy.

Several thorough analyses of how and why the United States is going astray from her traditions are already reshaping our national debate.  Foremost on the conservative side are Ivan Eland’s The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed (Independent Institute, 2004) and Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press, 2005).  Together with several volumes from the liberal side—notably, Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2000) and The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (Metropolitan Books, 2004)—these works are focusing the national debate on how neoconservatism is jeopardizing real homeland security by overemphasizing international interventionism.  Such interventionism is built on what Johnson characterizes as an “empire of bases” resulting from U.S. efforts to expand the American military footprint overseas and thereby enhance U.S. strategic flexibility in dealing with potential terrorists, and it is fostered by what both Bacevich and Johnson bemoan as growing militarism among U.S. leaders.

Americans are making their homeland increasingly vulnerable by expending too much time, money, and effort on flawed global security while neglecting literal national security.  Despite the warnings of such authentic American conservatives as Eland (see also his Putting “Defense” Back Into U.S. Defense Policy) calling our attention to vulnerabilities on the home front, and as much as September 11 should have made us acutely aware of the risks posed by Islamic terrorists within our borders, Washington persists in its interventionist Wilsonianism.  Were terrorists to carry out any of the major threats within the United States that so many analysts have openly suggested are imminent—using some form of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon of mass destruction or any other form of attack capable of inflicting massive casualties—Americans could experience a societal catastrophe far more devastating than the Vietnam War.  In a peculiar way, the American public’s anxieties about governmental efficacy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina may have a positive spillover effect by drawing attention to the budgetary priorities of all facets of homeland security, which could be tested by a future catastrophe.

No one in his right mind would long for such an event.  Nonetheless, it must be contemplated because it would generate the caliber of national debate capable of putting the United States on a proper track toward genuine national defense.  As things become worse in our “War on Terror,” and as more American critics—liberal and conservative—dwell on alternative priorities for authentic national defense, the dire prospect of such a catastrophic event should stimulate Americans to engage in a debate designed to rectify the situation before it gets out of control.  In such circumstances, Americans might adapt the antiwar slogan of some on the noninterventionist right and left—namely, “support the troops, bring them home”—in order to underscore what might be labeled the “GWOT Syndrome,” taking advantage of that awkward acronym for the Global War on Terrorism, about which even the Bush administration has had occasional second thoughts.  If a GWOT Syndrome debate were effectively conducted, it could yield a bipartisan consensus among Americans calling for a reconceived war on terrorists focused entirely on full-fledged homeland self-defense.  This would include improved anti-missile defenses and strengthened border and port security.  Instead of permitting a catastrophic attack to befall the United States on her home front, Americans should engage now in a debate that would shape an environment conducive to a much sounder approach to genuine national security.

This prospective debate would call attention to the domination of both major U.S. political parties by hawks and would thereby encourage dissenters in both parties to change course and lead the United States toward authentic national defense.  Genuine conservatives who rarely read the Nation could learn something from Alexander Cockburn’s column “[Chuck] Hagel and Ron Paul as the peace ticket in 2008!  Who needs Democrats?” (August 29 / September 5, 2005).  If the Republican Party returns to authentically conservative noninterventionist policies through this debate, it and the entire country would be vastly improved.  Conversely, if things get bad enough on the Republican end of the spectrum, I can foresee a conservative columnist advocating an equivalent team from the Democratic Party, perhaps led by Sen. Russ Feingold, asking “Who needs Republicans?”  Or the debate could create an incentive for noninterventionist dissenters in both parties to create a coalition drawing on the Robert Taft and George McGovern traditions.  Such a transpartisan coalition could form a successful third party that could dramatically alter our political and governmental course.

Americans should ask themselves three key questions pertaining to the issues surrounding U.S. interventionism.  What constitutes genuine national security?  How many of the countries overseas whom we count as U.S. “allies” do we really need to defend because we actually depend on them to defend U.S. homeland territory from external and internal attacks by terrorists?  And do we really want our president and Congress to be responsible for the defense of the entire world or just of the United States of America?  If we continue to foster the aforementioned debate, the answers to these questions, which are already apparent to anti-interventionists on the right and the left, will become more and more evident to the entire American populace, who, according to a recent Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations poll, are becoming more disposed to the United States “mind[ing] its own business internationally and let[ting] other countries get along as best they can on their own.”       


Edward A. Olsen is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and the author of U.S. National Defense for the Twenty-First Century: The Grand Exit Strategy (Frank Cass) and Toward Normalizing U.S.-Korea Relations: In Due Course? (Lynne Rienner). The views expressed are personal and do not represent those of the U.S. government.