Iraq crisis: Most Americans would now just prefer to forget where Iraq is

It almost makes you long for the good old days of Saddam Hussein

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A lone traffic cone in the Bronx right now boasts a sign with three words, “NO NEW WAR”, turned towards the traffic. It surely reflects the view of just about everyone who drives by.

America is not the land it was when George W. Bush embarked on two wars. The 9/11 attacks on the homeland by al-Qa’ida made the invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan seem like a mission blessed by God. The Iraq War plan prompted loud protests in many cities around the globe, but at least there was a case for it everyone could understand.

America was a nation with a cause, its sons and daughters signed up with patriotic zeal. Among those who changed their life-paths to fight no one became more famous than Pat Tillman, a professional American Football player, whose death at 27 in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2004 was one of the first clear signals to the public that neither war was going quite as planned.

By 2008, when Barack Obama burst on the scene, the disenchantment with both wars, and with the neo-cons like Vice-President Dick Cheney who had championed them, was complete. His pledge to get the troops home from both theatres as soon as he could secured his victory. Then came a withering recession and a new consensus took hold: it was time to rebuild America from within and the rest of the world could wait.

Fans of an interventionist America are appalled by the turn inwards. “Superpowers don’t get to Retire” was the headline on a recent article in The New Republic by historian Robert Kagan, who last week told the New York Times that Mr Obama’s twin decisions to leave Iraq in 2011 and pull back from strikes in Syria last year “are now converging to create this burgeoning disaster” in Iraq. But the average American won’t be convinced.

When a poll last week asked who seemed more sensible on Iraq – the President, who pulled out the troops, or Senator John McCain who argues that he shouldn’t have done – it was the President who came out ahead by a wide margin.

 

It isn’t just war-weariness, it’s Iraq-weariness too. When first reports of the rampage by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) were streaming in 10 days ago, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel happened to be before the House Armed Services Committee defending the swap of former prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl. How many questions did he get about Iraq? Not one. That’s how entirely Congress had lost interest. Most Americans would rather forget where Iraq is on the map. 

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Some Iraq War veterans now in Congress are asking what it was all for given what is happening now. “Going out across the desert I remember the feelings that you have, wondering if you’re going to make it out alive,” said Scott Perry, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania. “Right now I wonder what was the point of all of that?”

If Mr Obama is so reluctant to re-enter the fray it’s also because to the American people there would be no clear logic to doing so; no recent attacks on American soil, no lurking WMDs (or not). That prompted Eliot Engel, a Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, to make perhaps the most troubling observation of last week: “It almost makes you long for the good old days of Saddam Hussein.”

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