Does their caution in Libya show that Americans will make war no more?
â€œTHE spectre of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula. Itâ€™s a proud day for Americaâ€”and, by God, weâ€™ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.â€ That, at any rate, is what Bush the elder believed 20 years ago, shortly after the army he sent to Saudi Arabia booted Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But history likes a jest. As Barack Obama ponders whether force should be part of his response to Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, is a new syndromeâ€”an Iraq syndrome, contracted in the same sands of Arabia by Bush the youngerâ€”one of the things staying Mr Obamaâ€™s hand?
Bloody wars beget caution. As after Korea, as after Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans battle-averse. In 2005 John Mueller, a professor of political science at the Ohio State University, predicted in Foreign Affairs that an â€œIraq syndromeâ€ would eventually make America more sceptical of unilateral military action, especially in places that presented no direct threat to it, and less inclined to dismiss Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners as wimps. â€œThe United States may also become more inclined to seek international co-operation, sometimes even showing signs of humility.â€
A bullâ€™s eye for the professor. Against a backdrop of two wars and a surly economy, Mars is no longer ascendant in Mr Obamaâ€™s Washington. His drones may be zapping Taliban encampments in Pakistan, but Mr Obama always opposed the â€œdumbâ€ war in Iraq, and much of his own party hates the war he calls necessary in Afghanistan. Having been elected as the anti-Bush, he needs another entanglement in the Middle East like he needs a hole in the head. So although Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, says that no option will be taken off the table, and America has sent warships nearer to Libya, the emphasis for the present is firmly on diplomacy. On Capitol Hill this week, Mrs Clinton talked about â€œusing the combined assets of smart powerâ€ in Libya. In a reversal of the usual pattern, America is said to be pouring some cold water on heated talk in Europe, and especially in Britain, of NATO clearing Colonel Qaddafiâ€™s aircraft from Libyaâ€™s skies.