If I were to pick a single decision by an American president and his team in this century as our own August 1914, I would choose the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Of course, in that era of the “sole superpower,” there were no other great powers (as in the World War I moment) ready to leap into the fray, so the unraveling that followed across a significant part of the planet would prove not to be a world war but a one-power hell on Earth. And it’s continued to unfold over nearly a decade and a half. That invasion, which the geopolitical dreamers and supporters of the administration of George W. Bush guaranteed would be a “cakewalk,” cost next to nothing, and leave the United States forever dominant in the Middle East, that moment when Iraqis were sure to greet their American “liberators” with flowers and hosannas, that moment when hubris would gain new meaning proved an unmitigated disaster. The U.S. would punch a hole directly through the oil heartlands of the region and from that there would be no turning back.
Occupation, civil war, ethnic cleansing, terror movements, abuses of every sort — and as far as we know, we may still not be near the end of its effects. Parts of the Middle East already lie in ruins, city after city reduced to rubble, whole populations in flight. In 2017, for instance, the Syrian city of Raqqa, the former “capital” of the Islamic State, was subjected, among so many other things, to 20,000 “coalition” (i.e. American) bombs. The U.N. has now declared 80% of it “uninhabitable.” In the wake of what passes for “victory” over the “caliphate” of the Islamic State (itself born in an American military prison camp) — one of a number of similar “victories” in these years, starting with the U.S. military’s taking of Baghdad in April 2003 — ISIS has gone underground, but not disappeared. Meanwhile, all the resentments, grudges, and conflicts that invasion and occupation released are still festering; the money for rebuilding is nowhere in sight; and the next iteration of the ongoing wars in the region has already been launched by NATO ally Turkey against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. So now, the Turks, the Kurds, Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, local militias of every sort, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS guerillas, various al-Qaeda-linked groups, Russia, and Iran are all in the mix. And the Trump administration has committed its military to remaining in both Iraq and Syria until, it seems, the end of time. What could possibly go wrong?
And keep in mind that one other nightmare lurks just offshore (so to speak): Iran. The top officials of the Trump administration, Iranophobes all, are eager to finish the job started by the Bush administration so long ago by taking down Iran. It tells you something about the mood in Washington today that Defense Secretary James Mattis, who as CENTCOM commander in 2011 essentially lost his job thanks to his urge to go after Iran, is now considered the voice of reason on the subject in Washington.
In February 2003, I marched with vast crowds protesting the coming invasion of Iraq and the devastation it might bring. We knew that such an invasion couldn’t turn out well — and so many more reasonable choices were available that would have left us in a better world. And keep in mind that Iraq was just one decision on the road to Donald Trump. Today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich looks back over that past world of choices and picks 11 all-American moments between the fall of the Berlin Wall and election 2016 that might have given us a different world and assumedly a different president.