Sixteen years ago this week, the George W. Bush administration sent U.S. forces crashing into Iraq without a real plan for what to do after defeating Saddam Hussein. It is easy to forget that moment’s fervent convictions about the Iraqi dictator’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda—and the calamity into which Iraq soon descended. It all seems to belong to another era. The debate today is more about how we got out of Iraq than how we got in.
The idea that the U.S. would do anything like Iraq again feels ridiculous. We appear to have learned our lesson, and America’s political climate hardly seems primed for new military adventures. No imminent threat demands a response. President Donald Trump arrived in office determined to reduce U.S. commitments abroad, not to multiply them. He is aiming for a deal with North Korea, not war; pulling troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, not pushing more in.
But this picture bears a striking resemblance to the situation in the U.S. in the late 1990s. It was a time of domestic focus. Foreign policy had receded into the background, and no one was clamoring to invade and occupy far-off lands. In the charged atmosphere after 9/11, however, the national mood shifted dramatically. Looking back on the Iraq invasion, a key lesson is how easy it can be to tumble into a war that once seemed preposterous.