Was the Iraq war the greatest strategic error in recent decades, as some pundits have suggested recently? The simple answer is no. That honor belongs to the failure to take action against al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden before the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001. And if one wants to go back a few decades further, it was the failure to stop Hitler in Europe and to deter war with Japan, failures that dwarf both Iraq and Vietnam in terms of their tragic consequences and the cost in lives and treasure.
Therein lies the conundrum. One kind of error can come from doing too much, from using force too quickly, extravagantly or, as is usually the case, ineptly. The other can come from doing too little, from not using sufficient force quickly enough to remove or deter a threat before it strikes or from hoping that there is an alternative to force until it is too late to act effectively. Nor should it be surprising that the first kind of error often leads to the second. The lesson of 9/11 for many who lived through it was that passivity in the face of threats was dangerous. This thinking surely informed the George W. Bush administration’s actions on Iraq, and it informed the support given those actions by 77 members of the Senate, including a majority of Democrats, when they authorized the use of force in October 2002. Then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. expressed the common view at the time that Saddam Hussein, if left “unfettered,” posed an “inevitable threat” and the only question was whether “we address it now or do we wait a year or two or three.” Similarly, the lessons learned after U.S. global passivity in the 1930s produced the global activism, sometimes to excess, of the Cold War era.