Ross Douthat: Was Iraq a worse disaster for America than Vietnam?

The Vietnam effect was more of a fever, whereas the Iraq effect seems like a wasting or relapsing disease.

(Alain Pilon | The New York Times)

At the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, we stand in the same position relative to the initial invasion as America stood in 1985 relative to the 1965 arrival of our first combat troops in Vietnam. This makes it a useful moment to compare the two conflicts and their effects, and to consider — provisionally, always provisionally — which was more disastrous, which intervention deserves to be remembered as the worst foreign policy decision in our history.

For some time, even after my own initial support for the war dissolved and its folly became obvious, I doubted that Iraq could outstrip Vietnam in the ranks of American debacles. More than 12 times as many American troops died in the Vietnam War as died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath. The bloodletting among Iraqis was terrible, but so was the civilian toll in Southeast Asia. The United States lost the Vietnam War completely; in Iraq, we left behind an unsteady and corrupt republic rather than a new dictatorship, with a government that still allows a U.S. military presence.

Domestically, the period around the Vietnam War was dreadful — a wave of domestic terrorism, a crisis of authority, the 1960s curdling into the 1970s. The immediate aftermath of Iraq was sour and paranoid in its own way, but even with the Great Recession, there wasn’t the same kind of radicalism and social breakdown. When Barack Obama was elected president, American conservatism seemed shattered by Iraq, as American liberalism was shattered by Vietnam, but by his second term, there was a return to ideological stalemate.

At various times, then — at the 10th anniversary of the war, maybe even at the 15th — it was possible to imagine a long-term future where Iraq was ultimately remembered more like our bloody counterinsurgency in the Philippines at the dawn of the 20th century than like the trauma of Vietnam — as a bad war, but not an era-defining one; as a squandering of blood and treasure and moral credibility, but one whose overarching strategic costs were not so great.

Today, there’s a stronger case for seeing Iraq as a more epochal disaster. In American domestic life, the Vietnam effect was more of a fever, whereas the Iraq effect seems like a wasting or relapsing disease. The war’s influence has percolated inside other social crises, like the opioid epidemic, that have become more visible and destructive over time. Its lingering effects have made the body politic more susceptible to left-wing radicalism and right-wing demagogy, while contributing to a persistent mood of pessimism and disappointment that’s then been exacerbated by other forces (social media, the coronavirus pandemic).

In our political coalitions, these disillusioning effects look even more substantial and permanent than they appeared in 2010 or 2015. Ever since the war discredited and helped dissolve the hawkish center-left, nobody has been able to reconstitute a strong centrist faction within liberalism, with the result that liberal institutions have been pulled ever leftward since 2004. Ever since the war discredited both neoconservatism specifically and the Republican establishment generally, nobody has been able to maintain a successful counterweight to the various forms of right-wing populism, Tea Party and Trumpian, that have made the GOP ungovernable and incapable of governing.

And there is a special irony that even with the intellectual ferment on the Trump-era right, the attempts to forge a “national conservatism” or a socially conservative populism sometimes look like efforts to grope backward to George W. Bush’s platform in 2000, before he traded his humble foreign policy for a grand crusade.

But it is in the effect on America’s global position that the costs of the Iraq War really keep compounding. It’s now clear that not just the war alone but its ever-spreading secondary consequences — which included our futile overinvestment in Afghanistan, fatefully cast as the “good war” by many Democrats opposed to the Iraq invasion — kept us tied us down during critical years of geopolitical realignment, making it hard to even think about, let alone cope with the revival of Russian power and the rise of China to superpower status.

The all-but-certain influence of our final defeat in Afghanistan on Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was just one link in a long chain of consequences forged by the Iraq War. Likewise, our newly aggressive posture toward the Chinese regime is a risky attempt to play catch-up to shifts that we should have been more attuned to a decade ago.

And while the effects of the Iraq War on the developing world’s attitudes toward the United States can be overstated, our initial invasion clearly made us seem like a less trustworthy hegemon — reckless and revisionist rather than steady and reliable. Then the way the war contributed to our internal divisions and derangements also made American culture seem less admirable and the broader liberal-democratic project seem less inevitable. So not only Russia and China but also other power centers, from India to Turkey, were pushed toward post-American and post-Western paths by everything that followed.

Now return to the comparison between 2023 and our Reagan-era situation, barely a decade after the last helicopters left Saigon. By 1985, we had managed to separate China from Russia, the Soviet economy was faltering, and Mikhail Gorbachev had just been elected general secretary of the Communist Party, with glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall just around the corner. Today, with Russia and China increasingly aligned together against us and Chinese influence increasing, we seem to be descending back into the kind of twilight struggle that in ‘85 we were poised to finally transcend. So if Vietnam 20 years on looked like a disaster that in our strength we were able to absorb, a surmountable obstacle to American ascent, Iraq 20 years on looks more like our empire’s nemesis, full stop.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving. Almost nobody in 1985 realized just how quickly the Soviet Union would collapse, and perhaps today the American comeback is already beginning. We have resources and forms of legitimacy that are lacking in our more authoritarian rivals; their systems are persistently vulnerable to the follies of autocratic decision-making. And the Ukraine conflict, for some, is seen as a possible doorway to revival — reinvigorating the West much as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II once did, drawing Putin into the same sort of quagmire that Afghanistan offered to the Soviets, helping us shake our Iraq distemper on a different timetable than with our Vietnam syndrome, but with similar results.

It’s not a coincidence that among those most invested in this hope are some of the Iraq War’s most ardent advocates. They want redemption, understandably, for their vision of American power, if not for the Iraq decision itself.

I don’t share their optimism, but I’m not surprised at its resilience — especially when the alternative possibility, that a single choice made with such confidence 20 years ago still has our empire on a sunset path today, seems too terrible to bear.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.