For more than a decade the easiest way to win a foreign policy debate in Washington was to bring up the Iraq War. It's what Barack Obama did to sell his Iran deal in 2015. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., played the Iraq War card last year to press the case for staying out of Syria. Lawmakers and pundits have offered ritual apologies for going along with the calls to oust Iraq's dictator in 2003.
It's important to learn from the mistakes of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. However Washington is not becoming wiser from this experience, but simply skittish -- leading to impotence as the Levant burns.
Even if Trump decides to do more than symbolic airstrikes (and he should), he will not be repeating the ambitious nation-building mission launched by George W. Bush in 2003. Even the interventionist side of the debate in American foreign policy is not calling for a full-scale invasion of Syria or the establishment of a Coalition Provisional Authority in Damascus. The most ambitious proposal to date is to take away Assad's air force and to protect the territory the U.S. helped liberate from the Islamic State.
This moderate proposal reveals the inordinate fear of repeating the Iraq War. There's a flawed assumption at work: American military intervention contributes to instability. Often, the opposite is true. Nonetheless, this belief is what drove Obama to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, at a moment when a fragile peace held.
At the time, U.S. soldiers in Iraq served as an important restraint preventing the Shiite majority in the country from trampling the Sunni minority that had long held power. The slog of patrolling neighborhoods in big cities was over by 2011. U.S. forces were mainly training the new Iraqi military. But even after Obama relented in 2014 and sent some U.S. forces back into Iraq and later Syria, he still defended the 2011 exit by saying U.S. soldiers would have been caught in the crossfire of an inevitable civil war.
This kind of reasoning makes statecraft appear easier than it is. "We can't get it right, so why bother?"
In his farewell statement to the Atlantic Council last month, the retired U.S. diplomat Fred Hof captured how Obama's approach to Syria was haunted by the legacy of the Iraq War. Speaking of internal debates in which Hof participated, he said, "President Obama would caricature external alternatives by creating and debating straw men: invented idiots calling for the invasion and occupation of Syria."
Ultimately Obama approved a few CIA and Pentagon programs to train rebels to fight Bashar al-Assad's foul regime. He eventually approved airstrikes and special operations forces to go into Syria and find local partners to attack the Islamic State. But Obama never attempted a no-fly zone or safe zones to protect civilians from Assad's war machine, and he never supported the rebels enough so their mission to end the dictatorship would succeed.
Now as Trump decides how to respond to this past weekend's apparent gassing by the Syrian regime, it's worth revisiting his promise from last month to leave Syria to others. We're already seeing the consequences of such talk. The Israelis this week bombed an Iranian base inside Syria. This prompted harsh warnings from Russia and Iran. There is a real chance America's exit could transform the conflict in Syria into a regional war.
That's bad enough. But there is another consequence to post-Iraq War trepidation: risking the credibility of international law. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America has been the primary instrument to enforce the treaties, conventions and resolutions that make up international law. When Obama declined to enforce his "red line" against the use of chemical weapons, it was not just U.S. credibility that suffered. It was the international system itself. When the U.S. doesn't punish rogues, no one does.
It's unlikely that argument will hold much sway with Trump or his new national security adviser, John Bolton. They don't think much of international law, and Trump has called for other nations to step up as regional peacemakers. But for liberals and progressives who have sworn to never support another Iraq War, this question of the credibility of international law should resonate. What good is an international system if a dictator like Assad pays no real cost for gassing his people?
It's an irony that the reason for the Iraq War was the dictator's failure to account for and destroy his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Today Syria's dictator has not only failed to destroy such weapons, but is actually using them on his own population. It would be a tragedy if he got away with it because the U.S. president is still fighting against the last war.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.