The United States emerged from the Cold War with unprecedented absolute and relative power. It was truly first among unequals. Not surprisingly, its leaders were uncertain about what to do with such advantages, and for more than a decade following the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall, U.S. foreign policy was conducted without much in the way of an overarching strategy.
The 9/11 attacks changed all this, giving Washington a surfeit of purpose to go along with its preponderant power. Within weeks, in the opening act of what became known as the “global war on terrorism,” the United States moved to oust the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan in order to prevent future attacks by al Qaeda and to send the message that governments that tolerated or abetted terrorism would not be secure.
Association with terrorism, however, was not the reason the United States attacked Iraq 17 months later. Nor was the reason preempting the use of weapons of mass destruction, for Iraq represented at most a gathering threat in that realm, not an imminent one. (Now, we know it did not represent even that, but at the time, it was widely believed that it did.) Rather, the principal rationale for attacking Iraq was to signal to the world that even after 9/11, the United States was not, in Richard Nixon’s words, a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Many of the war’s proponents also believed that Iraq would quickly become a thriving democracy that would set an example for the rest of the Middle East.
The decision to attack Iraq in March 2003 was discretionary; it was a war of choice. There was no vital American interest in imminent danger, and there were alternatives to using military force, such as strengthening the existing sanctions. The war in Afghanistan, in contrast, started as a war of necessity. Vital interests were at stake, and no other policy could have protected them in a timely fashion. But toward the end of the Bush administration, that conflict started to morph