Further, the war transformed American society almost overnight as the reach of the national government expanded with a powerful force. The telegraph, telephone, and railroad industries were nationalized, along with the distribution of coal. The government undertook the direct construction of merchant ships and bought and sold farm goods. A military draft was instituted. Individual and corporate income tax rates surged. The government unfurled a massive propaganda campaign, and dissent was suppressed by the notorious Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who vigorously prosecuted opposition voices under severe new laws. Meanwhile, the economy flipped out of control, with no growth in 1919, a 2.24 percent decline in 1920, and a further 4.16 percent decline in Wilson’s final budget year of 1921.
By the 1920 presidential election, with Wilson sidelined because of a series of strokes, the country had had enough, and voters turned out Democrats with a vengeance. It was one of the greatest political repudiations in U.S. history.
America’s involvement in World War I probably could have been avoided had Wilson pursued a more even-handed neutrality policy. (His secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, resigned in protest over Wilson’s policies, which he predicted would draw the United States into the war.) Further, once the country did get involved, the president’s mishandling of both the diplomacy and domestic politics guaranteed failure. Though many historians and commentators continue to laud Wilson’s presidency because of his expansive use of executive power, this represented a foreign-policy fiasco on a grand scale.
Greatest Fiasco: The Invasion of Iraq, 2003. On the question of whether this was a discretionary initiative, there can be no longer any real debate. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, nor did he have any serious connection to Islamist fundamentalists such as those who had attacked the American homeland on September 11, 2001. In other words, he was not the enemy. And, when his rule was upended and his country destroyed, it was inevitable that jihadist Islam would exploit the resulting chaos.
And it isn’t simply Iraq that has slipped into chaos and posed opportunity for the real enemy, which is Islamist radicals bent on attacking the West whenever and wherever possible. It seems clear that the so-called Arab Spring emerged in part from inspiration derived from events in Iraq, which nurtured confidence among many elements of Islam that change was possible. Unfortunately for many, the change that has unfolded hasn’t contributed to regional stability, let alone anything approaching the democracy envisioned by the architects of the Bush invasion. And so now we have ISIS on the march, established in significant expanses of territory in Syria and Iraq. Dealing with that problem—a problem of the real enemy—will now draw America further into the maw. The cost has been immense, and unfortunately it is just beginning.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.