Great powers have the luxury of making costly mistakes. The many lives and endless treasure that the United States expended in Vietnam did little to affect the course of the Cold War, as the Soviet economy and Soviet society collapsed under their own weight. During the imperial era, Britain, France, and Russia regularly made terrible strategic errors that seemed catastrophic at the time, but had little impact on the overall strategic picture.
The enduring cost of the Iraq invasion comes in the form of the thousands of dead Americans, and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis. Technology shortfalls driven by the war will smooth out over time; the war didn’t cause the U.S. to “miss out” on any critical technological opportunities, instead simply delaying them. The biggest change likely comes in a reassertion of the traditional reticence of the American public towards foreign military intervention, a reticence that waned after the fall of the Soviet Union, but has again become a major factor in the making of American foreign policy. And if this reticence limits America’s strategic flexibility to make horrifically tragic mistakes, then some good can come out of the Iraq War.
Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls. This article first appeared several years ago.