Jonathan Chait’s explanation for why he supported the Iraq war isn’t very satisfying:
These events [in the ’90s] had conditioned me to trust the hawks, or at least, the better informed hawks. They also conditioned me unconsciously to regard wars through this frame, as relatively fast attacks without a heavy occupation phase [bold mine-DL]. People tend to think the next war will be somewhat like the last. That is a failing I will try to avoid again.
Whenever a liberal hawk invokes Clinton’s Balkan interventions, he usually makes some version of the claim that Chait makes here. According to this view, the Bosnia and Kosovo interventions were “fast attacks without a heavy occupation phase.” Some versions of this revisionism treat U.S./NATO intervention in Bosnia as if all that it took to end the Bosnian War were a few airstrikes, but in all versions the Balkan interventions of the ’90s are remembered as “fast” ones that didn’t involve an occupying role for the U.S. and its allies later on. To believe this about U.S. and NATO interventions in the ’90s requires not knowing what happened in these countries after the interventions faded from the headlines. To believe this requires ignoring that the U.S. and NATO had, and in some cases still have, soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo more than a decade after the initial interventions. When the pre-Iraq war debate was going on, U.S. and allied forces had been in Bosnia for seven years and Kosovo for more than three. If that was the case for “fast” interventions, why would the need for a post-war occupation be any less when war supporters were proposing to overthrow a government and replace it with a new one? The Balkan interventions of the ’90s aren’t likely to tell us much about the likelihood of succeeding at preventive war, regime change, and institution-building in a hostile country, which is why appealing to the experience of the Balkan interventions makes so little sense. That said, the experience in the Balkans should have at least served as a warning that the U.S. and its allies would need a vastly larger force than they had, and they should have understood that they were much more likely to encounter resistance than U.S. and allied forces did from locals in the Balkans.
The example of the Gulf War doesn’t help matters. Even the Gulf War, which quickly achieved its goals of driving Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, led to a long, drawn-out role for the U.S. that included a large U.S. military presence in the region, two (illegal) no-fly zones, and a cruel sanctions regime that lasted over a decade. If there was one thing everyone should have learned from the wars of the ’90s, it was that the U.S. was going to be coping with the aftermath and costs of the war long after Hussein was overthrown. The Iraq war was a much riskier, much more ambitious undertaking than anything the U.S. had tried in the ’90s, and all of the major military interventions of the ’90s imposed obligations on the U.S. that went far beyond the war itself. If this was true of the “fast” wars, why would it have been any easier after the invasion of Iraq?