The Aftermath of Iraq: A Cautious West in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan

What is the plan? For how long do we insist that the goal is a worthwhile one? And for the most difficult part, how do we convince the American public and the international community we are doing the right thing?
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The aftermath of the war in Iraq has resulted in a more cautious approach to U.S. military engagements overseas. No longer do Americans think that the U.S. can or should become involved in military operations overseas unless our national security is directly at risk. Even then, there is ample room for debate on what is our national security interest.

In the wake of the war in Iraq, the U.S. is reluctant to become involved in the humanitarian crisis going on in Syria and anxious to get out of Afghanistan for fear of getting bogged down. But with Iran, the lesson from Iraq seems to be that there is a new standard of what constitutes 'evidence' of a nuclear weapons program.

IranThe West does not trust Iran on its word that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. However, there is no hard evidence of such a program. At present, the concern is not if Iran is constructing a nuclear weapon, but over the concern that Iran is building a nuclear weapon capability. Israel recognizes this important distinction. There are many steps that Iran would have to take to signal to the world that it is pursuing a nuclear 'weapons' program. So long as the IAEA has the ability to monitor their program, we will know if Iran is going to construct a nuclear weapon.

In the aftermath of Iraq, the West is far more hesitant about preemptive attacks on another nation suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Israel is working on a much shorter timeline for a strike on Iran than the U.S. Such a premature and perhaps needless attack could have serious consequences for the U.S. and the world. From the U.S. point of view, if diplomacy, sanctions and covert action fails in Iran, the prospect of military intervention becomes almost inevitable.

On the one hand, the argument can be made that the U.S. won't get a WMD program wrong a second time. On the other hand, there is a heightened level of skepticism of what the U.S. knows and what it should or should not get involved with. The aftermath of Iraq has made the U.S. wary of preemptive attacks against other nations, and rightly so.

SyriaWith over a year of violence between the Syrian government and its people, talk of ethnic cleansing has entered the fray. Ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity per the International Criminal Court. The question is: Do hostilities against the Sunni Muslims at the hands of Alawite Muslims constitute ethnic cleansing? If so, should the U.S. intervene, and if so, how -- boots on the ground, sanctions, diplomacy, a combination of all of the above?

We can use successful examples of humanitarian intervention as a guide but we do so with limitations. We intervened in 1995 in Bosnia and Herzegovina under the Dayton Accords, but this is not 1995, it is not the Balkans, and this is not yet at the point where anyone is talking about genocide. Russia and China have been obstructing efforts to bring hostilities to an end, and the Arab League has not exhausted all of its own options. Finally, with some reason to believe that terrorist groups may be opposing the al Asad regime, how does the U.S. not support the rebels but not support the terrorist groups? If there were an easy answer, it would not be in the news and we would not be talking about it. The aftermath of Iraq has made us wary to intervene in a humanitarian crisis at the hands of a dictator.

AfghanistanWith the recent killing of 16 Afghan civilians allegedly at the hands of a U.S. soldier, this incident has brought our attention to the issue of what are we still doing in Afghanistan. The U.S. entered Afghanistan for the right reasons. Now that the Taliban has been removed from power, Osama bin Laden is dead, and with Afghanistan's president essentially saying that the U.S. has overstayed their welcome, the debate is in full gear about our role in that country. Should we leave earlier than planned, or should we stay the course and finish what is called our mission? The aftermath of Iraq has made us wary to remain in any country for a prolonged period of time.

Looking ForwardIn the wake of Iraq, we may be left with a heightened sense of cautiousness about getting involved overseas. This may be a good thing, but taken too far, it may cripple our ability to get involved when it may be necessary.

The U.S. must determine what is in its national interest. This includes security, political, economic and humanitarian. Once these interests are identified, we have to define what success looks like. But then comes the hard part: How do we achieve success? What is the plan? For how long do we insist that the goal is a worthwhile one? And for the most difficult part, how do we convince the American public and the international community we are doing the right thing?

The war in Iraq has made the American public skeptical of any foreign engagements. Depending on the issue, this reluctance to get involved overseas may be a good thing, but other times, it may not.

PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarment Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at

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