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It was a euphoria that had no time for limning important analogical differences between the two wars. Vietnam was about the United States choosing sides in a civil war as a buttress against regional communism; the Gulf War was about a genuine international coalition reversing naked state-on-state aggression. Wars are easier to conclude in 100 hours (as opposed to 100+ months) when the objective is limited and clear.
The Vietnam Syndrome had taken a body blow, but was not quite dead. Draft-dodger Bill Clinton spent most of his first term drifting in and out of minor conflicts while the bodies piled up in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, while congressional Republicans sounded reliable warnings against American interventions just about anywhere. "The aspect of the future of this nation that bothers me more than anything else," said one GOP senator in January 1993, "is the prospect of sending American troops on the ground into Bosnia." That senator's name was John McCain.
The success in finally bombing Serbian authoritarian Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table in 1995, after four years of frustrating diplomatic impotence in the face of Milosevic's gruesome ethnic slaughter, converted many peacenik lefty types into Munich-invoking liberal hawks. By the time American warplanes started bombing Serb forces in Kosovo in March 1999, many Republicans had lost their gun-shyness as well. "For a while we made our way in the world less sure of ourselves than we had been before Vietnam," McCain wrote at the conclusion of his September 1999 Vietnam memoir, Faith of My Fathers. "That was a pity, and I am relieved today that America's period of self-doubt has ended."
As we gear up to learn what one hopes are the right lessons from the Iraq war, let us volunteer as an underrated if unsatisfying virtue a little of that ol' self-doubt. And let us recognize that any American president, of any party, who acts without restraint from either Congress, international opinion, or the long-degraded principle of sovereignty, will inevitably lower the bar for our next great self-inflicted calamity.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason