Robert Golan-Vilella thinks that Americans’ reluctance to intervene in other conflicts can’t be attributed entirely to the Iraq war:
Freier is right that choosing to launch the Iraq War was a huge mistake, and that the costs of the war continue to weigh on decision makers in the White House and the Pentagon….However, it’s far from clear that our leaders would in fact be acting all that differently in any of these situations were it not for the legacy of Iraq. Nor is it clear that if they did, the result would be to make any of those situations any better.
I’m inclined to agree that opposition to intervention in Syria (or sending weapons to Ukraine) would exist and still be quite strong if the Iraq war had never happened. The arguments for these policies aren’t persuasive, U.S. interests in both places would still be minimal, and the dangers of being drawn into costly and prolonged conflicts would not have changed. Intervention in Syria is a terrible idea all on its own, and we don’t need the example of the Iraq war to see that. Yes, there might have been less opposition than there is, but even before the invasion of Iraq Americans were not eager to involve the U.S. in foreign conflicts if these posed no real threat to our security. As Golan-Vilella says, the Iraq debacle provided opponents of intervention in Syria with an additional cautionary tale, but it’s not as if the U.S. hadn’t already had bad experiences with taking part in other nations’ conflicts. Furthermore, if Hussein had not been overthrown, it is possible that his government would be one of the sponsors of anti-Assad rebels, and there would presumably be no interest in taking the same side as Hussein.
However, I do wonder if there would have been as much reluctance to intervene among policymakers and politicians. If the Iraq war had not happened, hawks in both parties would not be identified with the worst foreign policy blunder in a generation. As it is, Iraq war supporters remain depressingly all too influential in contemporary debates. If the Iraq war had not demonstrated how extremely poor their judgment was, they would almost certainly be even more influential than they are. There could still be a Democratic president in office for other reasons, but it is plausible that it would be a more hawkish one who might have involved the U.S. directly in Syria at an earlier date. While hawks today insist that they would never favor putting ground forces in Syria, they might not be so restrained if the U.S. had not waged a long, desultory war in the country next door. There is no way to know for certain, but considering how close the U.S. came to bombing Syria last year it is plausible that the aftereffects of the Iraq war may have been what made the difference. If so, that is one of the very few good things to come out of the Iraq war.