A major consequence of the U.S. military failure in the Indochina wars was the Vietnam syndrome—the anti-interventionist consensus in Congress and among the American public against sustained U.S. troop commitments in foreign crises. Unpleasant memories of the Vietnam debacle seemed to constrain American political leaders in the final quarter of the twentieth century from embarking on wars far away that might result in large numbers of U.S. casualties and still not bring quick victory.
The first two U.S. military undertakings in this period were short and occurred closer to the continental United States. Combined U.S.–Caribbean military forces landed on the island of Grenada in late October 1983 to protect lives and end the political chaos following a violent leftist takeover of the country. The "rescue mission," as President Ronald Reagan called it, quickly restored order and had mostly withdrawn by the end of the year. In December 1989 the U.S. Army decisively intervened in Panama to oust a dictator, curtail the drug traffic, and restore stability. Because both military actions were brief and successful, dissent was minimal.
Then dramatic political changes in the Soviet Union (including the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991) and its European satellite states brought the end of the Cold War. The anticommunist rationale that had helped to justify U.S. military involvement in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere disappeared. Conflict nonetheless persisted in the international system, and the United States, now the lone superpower, found itself confronted in the last decade of the twentieth century with a series of regional, religious, and ethnic controversies abroad. Although seemingly remote from immediate U.S. interests, America's leaders felt strong responsibility to play a prominent role in these conflicts, including the prospect of military intervention.
Of the several U.S. military interventions in the 1990s, dissent against U.S. involvement in the Gulf War was the strongest. Following the invasion and takeover of neighboring Kuwait by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his forces in the summer of 1990, George H. W. Bush's administration and the United Nations condemned the annexation and imposed economic sanctions on Iraq. When the strategy of economic strangulation failed to dislodge Hussein from Kuwait, the Bush administration mobilized a broad multinational coalition in the United Nations, which authorized military action to expel Iraq from Kuwait if its forces had not withdrawn from that country by mid-January 1991. The well-orchestrated gradual escalation of diplomatic and economic pressure on Hussein allowed time for extensive debate in the United States over the merits of prospective military involvement.
Public divisions on the Gulf War were mainly ideological, with opponents, many of whom were already committed to liberal and antiwar causes, forming coalitions composed mainly of student, religious, labor, African-American, and human rights groups. On college campuses, for example, students claimed that young people were being asked to risk their lives in a crisis for which there were no vital U.S. interests, and the war could result in the reimposition of the military draft. Referring to the U.S. interest in regaining ready access to the rich Kuwaiti oil fields, a popular slogan, especially among more radical opponents, was "No blood for oil." A smaller, but articulate opposition from the conservative right argued that the Gulf War did not directly involve U.S. interests and, objecting to the international coalition, believed the United States should pursue its national objectives unilaterally. Proponents of U.S. action meanwhile emphasized Hussein's naked aggression in Kuwait and stories of Iraqi atrocities to counter antiwar advocates' moral protest.
Following President Bush's request in early January 1991 for congressional authorization to use U.S. armed forces to force Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, Congress openly debated and then approved resolutions endorsing U.S. military action against Iraq. The votes were fairly close, 52–47 in the Senate and 250–183 in the House, with divisions along party, ideological, and regional lines. Even without a decisive mandate for military action, however, the war effort, once begun, received strong popular American support, ranging between 70 and 80 percent in various polls, even after the allies began heavy bombardments of Iraqi military targets, which resulted in many civilian casualties. Opinion polls also indicated that U.S. women on the whole were inclined to have somewhat stronger reservations than men about the need for bombing and a military solution. When the air strikes failed to dislodge Hussein from Kuwaiti territory, a U.S.-led coalition of ground forces launched a military assault, which took only four days to drive the disorganized and demoralized Iraqi forces from Kuwait and obtain Iraq's surrender.
The swiftness of the U.S. military successes along with the often lighter-than-anticipated U.S. casualties sustained American public support for the Gulf War. Subsequent U.S. military operations abroad—in Somalia (1992–1994), Haiti (1994–1995), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo (1999)—were likewise short-lived and without heavy casualties. The political anarchy and famine in Somalia prompted UN intervention, including thousands of U.S. forces, to bring humanitarian aid, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and nation-building to the African state. Poorly conceived and executed, the UN effort failed to restore political order, and ambushes and raids on the occupying contingents by Somali warlords resulted in the deaths of many American troops. U.S. public opinion, previously apathetic, directed its anger at the disastrous UN policies. President William Jefferson Clinton decided to cut the nation's losses, and dissent dissipated with the withdrawal of U.S. and UN forces from Somalia by early 1994.
In Haiti, an army junta's overthrow of a constitutionally elected government headed by Jean Baptiste Aristide in 1991 resulted three years later in a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a U.S.-led multinational force to invade and restore Aristide to power. Drawing on the War Powers Act of 1973, the U.S. Senate passed a nonbinding resolution requiring congressional approval before invading Haiti, but Clinton, like previous recent presidents, denied the right of Congress to restrict the commander in chief. The intervention quickly achieved its short-term political objective of restoring Aristide and political order, although a U.S.–UN peacekeeping presence continued in Haiti until 1997.
After UN forces and the major European nations failed to bring peace and stability to the ongoing political turmoil and fighting in the former Yugoslavia, President Clinton began to assume leadership of a U.S.–European coalition in response to the escalating conflict in Bosnia. Beginning in 1994, NATO planes made sporadic air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs who had violated no-fly zones and attacked "safe-haven" cities and towns for UN forces and Muslim civilians. Further reports of ethnic cleansing by Serbs and their intransigence resulted in more intensive NATO air assaults on Serb positions, and Clinton officials urged Congress to approve the deployment of several thousand U.S. troops to the beleaguered region. Polls suggested an almost even split in American opinion on military intervention in Bosnia. The House of Representatives first narrowly rejected the proposal. Following the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995, which offered a framework for peacekeeping in Bosnia, Congress approved the deployment of 60,000 U.S. troops to implement the accords, although only by a very narrow margin in the House. Because large proportions of the American public and Congress were ignorant of or confused by the complex ethnic rivalries and conflicts in the Balkans, they wavered during the 1994–1995 crisis. While they seemed opposed to foreign military intervention, they also wanted the president to respond to Serbian atrocities. Dissenters did not question the humanitarian needs to relieve the suffering in Bosnia, but argued that the nation's interests were not involved. In the end, the allied forces implementing the Dayton Accords in Bosnia had no U.S. combat casualties, and Clinton ultimately succeeded in announcing that U.S. troops would remain there indefinitely.
The public's deep ambivalence about involvement in the Balkans reemerged following Serbian forces' massacres of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo (1999). Although many Republicans and Democrats in Congress held principled positions in supporting or opposing Clinton's authorization of U.S. and NATO bombing of Yugoslav positions, the partisan bitterness resulting from the recent impeachment and trial of President Clinton made more Democrats inclined to back the president. The Republicans by contrast were more unified in opposition. The failure of an antiwar House resolution as well as another one, by a tie vote, endorsing the air war suggested the hesitation. Meanwhile, the Senate approved the air strikes but rejected consideration of sending ground troops to Kosovo. Finally, after repeated NATO air strikes, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic capitulated and withdrew Serbian forces from Kosovo, and Congress agreed to fund NATO troops to maintain peace and order in the area. Because the air war lasted only seventy-nine days and occurred without a single U.S. casualty, dissent in the war never escalated.
In summary, dissent in war is not a new phenomenon in American history, born during the Vietnam War. All American wars have provoked dissent. Dissent is implicit in historic American attitudes toward war itself and is nourished when war becomes prolonged, costly in casualties, and indecisive. Because the American electorate has always shown only a limited patience for war, those troubled by dissent are mistaken when they interpret it as a new constraint upon the use of military force in American foreign policy. The constraint has been present from the beginning of American history.