James Fallows said something a bit odd in his recent post on the coming 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war:
In my view this was the biggest strategic error by the United States since at least the end of World War II and perhaps over a much longer period. Vietnam was costlier and more damaging, but also more understandable. As many people have chronicled, the decision to fight in Vietnam was a years-long accretion of step-by-step choices, each of which could be rationalized at the time. Invading Iraq was an unforced, unnecessary decision to risk everything on a “war of choice” whose costs we are still paying [bold mine-DL].
I’m not sure that there is much to be gained in trying to determine which disastrous, unnecessary war was least “understandable,” but I suspect that talking about it this way may make it harder to understand why the Iraq war happened. As far as Iraq hawks were concerned, the invasion was the continuation of a policy towards Iraq that took shape at least as far back as the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. There was broad support for regime change in Iraq then and later, just as there is now broad bipartisan backing for preventive war against Iran. The political atmosphere after 9/11 and the Bush administration’s preoccupation with Iraq were obviously the most important factors leading to the invasion, but it’s extremely difficult to imagine the Iraq war happening unless we take into account the agitation for regime change taking place in the years before 2002-03. Any war of choice is by definition unforced and unnecessary. Escalating in Vietnam was neither forced upon the U.S. nor necessary for U.S. security. We can hope that no future administration will plunge the U.S. into such a war with Iran, but if that does happen it will likewise be unforced and unnecessary. However, it would sadly be only too easy to understand how things reached that pass. The poor, limited quality of debate over Iraq policy from the ’90s is happening all over again with Iran, as the “debate” tends to focus on whether U.S. policy should give priority to impoverishing Iranians or to killing them more quickly. The foundations for terrible policy decisions are often laid years before the final decision is taken, and if we don’t pay attention to how those foundations are laid we won’t be prepared to stop the next awful policy in the future.