Iraq trumps Vietnam in disaster of US politics – 03/26/2023 – Ross Douthat

On the twentieth anniversary of the Iraq War, we are in the same position relative to the initial invasion as the United States was in in 1985 relative to the arrival of our first combat troops in Vietnam in 1965.

So this is a useful moment to compare the two conflicts and their effects and to consider – provisionally, only provisionally – which was more disastrous, which intervention deserves to be remembered as the worst foreign policy decision in our history.

For a while, even after my initial support for the war dissolved and the senselessness of the conflict became apparent, I doubted whether Iraq would surpass Vietnam in the rankings of American debacles.

The US lost the Vietnam War completely; in Iraq, we left behind an insecure and corrupt republic, in place of a new dictatorship, with a government that still allows for a US military presence.

Domestically, the period around the Vietnam War was horrific – a wave of domestic terrorism, a crisis of authority, the 1960s turning sour and giving way to the 1970s. The immediate post-War Iraq was sour and paranoid in its own way, but even with the Great Recession, we didn’t have the same kind of radicalism and social breakdown.

When Barack Obama was elected president, American conservatism seemed to have been shattered by Iraq, just as American liberalism had been shattered by Vietnam. But in Obama’s second term, the ideological stalemate returned.

Today there are compelling reasons to see Iraq as the most historic disaster, which most marked its time. Vietnam’s effect on American life was more comparable to that of a fever, but Iraq’s effect seems to be that of a degenerative or relapsing disease.

The war’s influence seeped into other social crises, such as the opiate epidemic, which became more visible and destructive as time went on.

Its lingering effects have left the political world more susceptible to left-wing radicalism and right-wing demagoguery, while also contributing to a persistent climate of pessimism and disappointment, a climate that has been exacerbated by other forces — social media, the pandemic.

In our political coalitions, these effects of disillusionment look even greater and more permanent than they did in 2010 or 2015.

Since the war helped dissolve the bellicose center-left, no one has been able to reconstitute a strong centrist faction within liberalism, and the result is that since 2004 liberal institutions have been pulled ever further to the left.

Since the war discredited both neoconservatism and the Republican establishment more generally, no one has been able to maintain an effective counterweight to the various forms of right-wing, Tea Party, and Trumpian populism that made the Republican Party ungovernable and incapable of governing.

And there is a special irony in the fact that, even with the intellectual turmoil among the Trump-era right, efforts to forge a “national conservatism” or socially conservative populism sometimes seem like efforts to grope back to the platform of George W. Bush in 2000, before he traded his modest foreign policy for a major crusade.

But it is in the effect on America’s global standing that the costs of the Iraq War really keep piling up and getting worse.

It is clear that not only the war itself, but also its ever-growing secondary consequences – which included our pointless overinvestment in Afghanistan, fatefully characterized as the “good war” by many Democrats who opposed the invasion of the Iraq — kept our hands tied during critical years of geopolitical realignment, making it difficult to even think about the rebirth of Russian power and China’s rise to superpower status, let alone deal with it.

The virtually certain influence of our final defeat in Afghanistan on Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was not just one link in a long chain of consequences forged by the Iraq War.

In the same way, our newly turned aggressive posture towards the Chinese regime is a risky attempt to catch up in reacting to transformations that we should have started paying more attention to a decade ago.

And while it’s possible to exaggerate the effects of the Iraq War on developing world attitudes toward the US, it’s clear that our invasion made us look like a less credible hegemonic power — more reckless and revisionist than stable and solid.

After that, the way the war contributed to our internal divisions and follies also made American culture seem less admirable, and the broader liberal democratic project, less inevitable. Thus, not only Russia and China, but also other centers of power, from India to Turkey, were pushed in post-American and post-Western paths by everything that followed.

Now back to comparing 2023 to our situation in the Reagan era, just a decade after the last helicopters left Saigon. By 1985, we had successfully separated China from Russia, the Soviet economy was faltering, and Mikhail Gorbachev had just been elected General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall were just around the corner. Today, with Russia and China increasingly aligned against us and Chinese influence growing, we seem to be plunging back into the kind of protracted twilight struggle that in 1985 we were poised to finally transcend.

Thus, if 20 years after Vietnam seemed like a disaster that, with our strength, we were able to absorb, 20 years after Iraq seems more like the nemesis of our empire. Full stop.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving. Hardly anyone in 1985 realized how quickly the Soviet Union would collapse. It may be that America’s comeback is already beginning.

We have resources and forms of legitimacy that our more authoritarian rivals lack; their systems are persistently vulnerable to the vagaries of autocratic decision-making.

And Ukraine’s conflict is seen by some as a possible gateway to rebirth – something that will reinvigorate the West as much as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II did, luring Putin into the same kind of quagmire as Afghanistan. offered to the Soviets, helping us to overcome our Iraqi illness in a different time frame than our Vietnam syndrome, but with similar results.

It is not by chance that among those who bet most on this hope are some of the biggest proponents of the Iraq War. Understandably, they seek redemption for their vision of American might, if not the Iraq decision itself.

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