Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars constrain US foreign policy
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of US combat troops from Vietnam, as agreed in the Paris Peace Accords. The war was the first that the US lost (possibly excepting the War of 1812) and it had a huge impact on how Americans think about foreign policy. More recently, the US also lost the war in Afghanistan. The outcome in Iraq is debatable but clearly it was less than a success. The combination of these three wars has made the American public more wary of full-scale military engagements abroad.
There are important differences between the three wars. For example, they began in different ways. The Vietnam War began as a slow escalation over a period of years in the context of the Cold War. The war in Afghanistan started quickly and with little discussion in response to the 9/11 attacks on the US. Washington took more time to prepare for the Iraq war, but the actual invasion happened quickly. Another essential difference was that many soldiers who fought in Southeast Asia were conscripted, while only the “volunteer” military fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are also important similarities between the wars. In all three, there was initially significant support for military action among foreign policy elites and much of the public. That support faded as casualties increased and success remained elusive — and as leaders failed to define what success would actually look like. In all three, US policymakers lacked a solid understanding about the cultural and local political context of the countries where US soldiers were fighting. Political leaders made misleading statements — at best — in all three wars in order to gain public support for military operations. Today, foreign policy and military experts disagree on what went wrong in the wars, making it difficult to draw broadly accepted lessons for the future.
The wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped the worldviews of several generations of Americans. Vietnam had the greatest impact, partly because it directly affected far more American families and shattered the idea of a reliably victorious America. The Vietnam War strongly shaped the Baby Boomer generation, who today are aged between 59 and 77 years. The post-9/11 wars shaped the perspectives of Generation X (aged 43 to 58 years) and Millennials (aged 27 to 42). Most American voters today have experienced losing wars and government deception about those wars — a major difference from the Second World War generation. This reality deeply shapes Americans’ attitudes toward foreign policy and their government.
Most American voters today have experienced losing wars and government deception about those wars — a major difference from the Second World War generation
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Despite ongoing debates about the wars, much of the public feels that there are some clear takeaways. One is that the US should be more careful about entering a war — and particularly about intentionally or unintentionally engaging in an escalatory spiral with no exit strategy. There is widespread reluctance to send soldiers into ground combat; many Americans are more comfortable with limited military and intelligence operations — and, more cautiously, airstrikes — than with putting “boots on the ground.” While Americans might still respond to future situations with a burst of patriotism, they are also likely to start questioning leaders’ statements and motivations earlier than in past conflicts. Finally, there is essentially no public support for nation-building, which is widely seen as having failed in Afghanistan and, more arguably, Iraq.
These concerns cut across political divides. Left-wing progressives and right-wing populists ask why the US spends so much money abroad rather than at home. Moderates from both political parties believe in the value of projecting US power and influence abroad but are more hesitant about taking military risks than in the past.
The Vietnam War did not prevent the US from engaging in future warfare, but it did shape when and how. Foreign policy scholars point to the shadow of Vietnam as one reason why Ronald Reagan withdrew US Marines from Lebanon after the 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut. During the first Gulf War, George H.W. Bush had the Vietnam experience in mind when deciding how far to go into Iraq. Bill Clinton considered the impacts of Vietnam when determining how involved the US should be in the Balkans war. Barack Obama considered lessons from Vietnam when deciding how much action to take in Syria. Donald Trump resisted calls from more hawkish members of his administration to go to war with Iran, knowing that his political base did not want further extensive military engagements.
Similarly, the experience of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are unlikely to prevent US participation in future wars, but their political and military impacts will shape how, where and when Washington proceeds. While there is significant support for providing Ukraine with weapons and other assistance, there is almost no mention among US politicians of sending combat soldiers to Ukraine. While the US will retaliate against Iranian-affiliated targets after incidents such as last week’s drone strike in Syria, Washington will work hard to avoid a full-scale war with Iran.
There are potential exceptions. There is strong bipartisan support for countering China, and US leaders would likely have more room to manage public opinion in response to perceived Chinese threats. If the US homeland was directly attacked again, there would likely be a surge of sentiment in favor of a military response. However, Americans will be quicker to question the value and long-term goals of military actions that involve significant numbers of soldiers on the ground.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch