First, arguing about which of the two stupidest foreign policy maneuvers of the last forty years is stupider is, well, a stupid thing to do. But, if I’m going to carry on, it’s better to move forward in a new post than in the comments section.
The case that Iraq is a more egregious strategic mistake than Vietnam lies on three foundations.
First, the failed intervention in Iraq may leave a failed state that will become a haven for terrorists, thus allowing more attacks on the United States. A corollary to this argument is that the intervention itself will spur people who would not otherwise have been inclined toward anti-American terrorism to attack the United States. Domestic security is a value, and terrorism threatens it.
Second, the failed intervention may produce a situation in Iraq that threatens oil supplies to the United States. Oil supplies need not be cut off in order to produce this bad effect, only threatened or reduced to the extent that increased prices threaten the health of the US economy. Economic prosperity is a value, and Persian Gulf instability threatens it.
Third, the conduct of the failed intervention in Iraq has driven a wedge between the United States and its European allies. This threatens the political, military, and economic ability of the United States to act in the ways that it wishes. Politico-economic-military autonomy is a value, and with alienated allies US autonomy is reduced.
Each of these arguments depends on the belief that the situation created by invading Iraq was worse than the situation that existed on the ground in March 2003. Terrorism against the US would have happened anyway, but the Iraq invasion has made it worse. The Persian Gulf would have been unstable anyway, but the Iraq invasion has made it less stable. Finally, the Western Alliance may have broken down anyway, but the Iraq invasion has accelerated that breakdown.
Let’s be clear: I believe all of these arguments. Al Qaeda will strike the US anyway, but is stronger because of hard feelings incurred by the invasion and the neglect of Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein did not actively assist Al Qaeda prior to 9/11, although left unmolested he might have supported them after; I used to believe the argument that Iraq and Al Qaeda were irredeemably ideologically hostile, but I don’t anymore. Nonetheless, Al Qaeda is better off with Americans running Iraq than Saddam Hussein. Moreover, the invasion has strengthened the hand of Iran in the Persian Gulf, and has almost certainly contributed to destablization in other neighboring countries. The effects of this will play themselves out over the next decade, but I expect that we’ll find ourselves with a very strong Iran and a very weak everyone else. Finally, the invasion has dealt a blow to the Western Alliance, perhaps permanently severing the close relationship that the US and Europe have enjoyed for the last sixty years.
Where I part company from the esteemed Dr. Lemieux and the esteemed Mr. Yglesias is in their assessment that the detrimental effects of the intervention exceed the detrimental effects of the Vietnam War on American strategic interests. Since this post is long enough already, I’ll save my argument on that for a bit later, and let anyone who wishes refine or strengthen this case in the comments section.