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How the Iraq war has changed America

A conflict that was supposed to be a quick in-and-out operation lasted nearly nine years – and has left a deep imprint on the policy of American intervention. 

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"There was a sense that the US military was almost magical; it was able to handle any assignment," says Harvard's Walt, listing a string of successes stretching back to the first Gulf War and the Kosovo intervention and including the initial foray into Afghanistan. "But all that ended when it got to the difficult political part after the takeover [in Iraq]. Now we're going to be much more careful about when and where we choose to use the military."

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The Bush doctrine may not be dead – as Walt notes, no US president would take preemptive action completely off the table – but it's likely to be a long time before a president turns to the military the way George W. Bush did.

"The idea of preventive war as a doctrine may well join the dustbin of history," says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq analyst now at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "Even a Republican president is going to think twice and three times before launching anything close to the Iraq war."

The "new reticence" that will follow Iraq can already be seen in the supportive, partner-dependent role that Mr. Obama chose for the US in NATO's Libya intervention, Mr. Barkey says.

But Libya was only a secondary interest to the US, other experts argue, and lent itself to Obama's approach. The real test of the Iraq war's impact on US foreign policy will come with Iran, these experts say – and perhaps sooner rather than later. For some, reverberations from Iraq can already be seen in the Obama administration's cautious public response to intelligence divulged in a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog arm. The report, released in early November, offers the most detailed evidence yet that Iran is seeking the ability to build and deliver a nuclear bomb.

"We're seeing the impact of the botched intelligence on Iraq in Obama's oh-so-careful approach to intelligence on Iran," says Brookings' Mr. Pollack. "In this case, the Iranians have an acknowledged nuclear program, it's the IAEA that's doing the investigating and making the claims, and yet the initial US response is a muted 'this concerns us' – that's the fallout from Iraq."

But Pollack, a former CIA and National Security Council Persian Gulf analyst, says that more than Iran, what worries him most is how the Iraq experience has turned Americans against involvement in the world. That, combined with budget constraints – to some extent the result of a costly Iraq project – could sour Americans on playing a role in places where Pollack says pulling back would be shortsighted.

Egypt is the current example of a "critical American interest" that Pollack uses, though he says there are many others. "We could cut a billion or two in aid to Egypt, which is peanuts in the greater scheme of our deficits, but what happens when the more populist government that's going to emerge says, 'The Americans really are abandoning us. We can do without them?' "

Broadening his argument, Pollack says, "My concern is that, in our post-Iraq fatigue and our mania to focus on internal problems, we'll end up doing things in foreign policy that are penny-wise but very much pound-foolish."

IN PICTURES: Leaving Iraq


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