I’ve heard that phrase applied twice recently to the Iraq War. First time it came out of Jimmy Carter’s mouth, and just last week, Madeleine Albright made the same claim. Even if you sympathize with Carter and Albright’s dim view of the second Iraq war, the long term consequences are not completely known, so whatever the deficiencies of the Iraq war, for now their belief must be classified as a prediction, not a careful judgment made by informed consideration of American history. Though they used the word ‘history,’ that statement is not really about history. (Another possibility, though I prefer the other one, is that Carter and Albright just don’t know much American history.)

My purpose in bringing this up is not, please no, to reopen wounds or reignite a debate that few of us can have dispassionately and respectfully. Instead, it is to ask (the current Iraq war excluded) what is the worst foreign policy blunder ever made by this country? In other words, let’s open some different partisan wounds! That way, at some future date when we can evaluate the Iraq war with the full benefit of hindsight, we will be able to place the Iraq war and all its associated costs and consequences, foreseen and unforeseen, in proper perspective. I will propose several here, but I think–whatever your partisan affiliation–you could probably find foreign policy decisions that were much more catastrophic than the Iraq war will turn out to be, even if the worst things people say about it come to pass. A cynic could say to Carter and Albright, “You think the Iraq war is a disaster? Don’t worry. We could do a lot worse. And we have!”

If you are interested in how a small and simple thing can lead to great consequences, you could point to the Rwanda genocide. Bill Clinton always tells it like was a question of whether to send in US troops. There were a lot of things he could have done short of that and very possibly prevented genocide. For instance, had we not given cover to the cowardly Belgians to withdraw their troops, things might have turned out very differently without us having had to commit troops.

If you believe that the United States is the sole cause of all misfortune that has befallen Latin and South America, (though I do not) you would be convinced that the Monroe Doctrine was a terrible catastrophe. Not only did it justify nearly two hundred years of interference in the hemisphere, but it also led to several wars and colonialist expansion. With more than a billion people in the hemisphere, and such a long time span, this amounts to a lot of foreign policy blundering.

With his criticism, Jimmy Carter invites comparison with his own potential blunders. For instance, the ham-handed way he supported the Shah, inflaming the Iranian revolutionaries, and then his flaccid response when the Embassy was taken, may be a good candidate for worst blunder ever, since we (and the Iranian people) are still suffering from the revolution after 30 years and if, as it appears, Iran is still pursuing a nuclear weapon. (If the National Intelligence Estimate is correct–and I do not think it is–that the Iranians stopped their nuclear program just as we were invading Iraq, it would be richly ironic if the Iraq blunder unintentionally prevented what could be a much bigger one, namely a nuclear-armed Iran.) Though the subsequent Reagan Administration didn’t help things at all when it illegally sold weapons to the Iranians, so there is bi-partisan blame to go around.

As long as we are mentioning the Reagan Administration, its cynical and immoral encouragement of the catastrophic Iran-Iraq war makes any casualties we have inflicted in the Iraq war pale in comparison. If you are exercised about the moral and civilian cost of the Iraq war, you should be more angry about the Iran-Iraq war. (Maybe Dan Ellsworth will upload his grotesque pictures of the massive “Hands of Victory” monument to the Iran-Iraq war in Bagdad, comprised of melted metal from Iranian guns and tanks and a colossal number of helmets confiscated from Iranian war dead.)

During Bush I’s presidency, I think his biggest blunder was the Iraq sanctions and then going along with the oil-for-food UN resolution. The result of the sanctions combined with oil-for-food, was Iraq’s deterioration from a merely totalitarian state to a gangster state, which is even worse. (In hindsight, continuing the slaughter of Saddam’s elite Revolutionary Guard on the “highway of death” might have been more compassionate, and led about to his collapse without us having had to invade Baghdad. Like Clinton with Rwanda, Bush I always says it like is was a choice between invading all the way to Baghdad and doing what he did. But in fact, there were many intermediate steps he could have taken and that may not have left Saddam in power.)

Because of the second Iraq war, we now know the scale of the graft, corruption, and mischief undertaken in the oil-for-food program. Over 44 billion dollars were siphoned off during that program, right under the nose of the UN, making it the biggest fraud ever perpetuated in the history of the world. More than twice as big as the Enron, WorldCom, and Parmalat scandals combined. Add to those scandals the alleged overcharging by Halliburton and other Bush and Cheney war profiteering corporations, and it still adds up to much less than half the amount of money stolen under the oil-for-food regime.

Just barely has enough time has elapsed since the end of the Clinton Administration to begin considering some of their potential blunders. Some might say the collapse of Yugoslavia, but that must be laid at the feet of the Europeans. It was only thanks to a unilateral, non-UN-approved air bombing, combined with an “arrogant” American intervention at Dayton, where Richard Holbrooke was able to knock enough heads together to patch together a modus vivendi that has held up a lot longer than I thought it would at the time. (My opinion at the time, which was also my opinion about the Iraq war before it began, is that this isn’t an effective way to bring about peace. So far, I was wrong about Yugoslavia, and I might end up being wrong about my dim view of the way the Bush Administration has waged the Iraq occupation.)

I think the worst foreign policy blunder of the Clinton Administration was their terrible mishandling of the Russian economy, led by Strobe Talbot and Jeffrey Sachs. The true and complete story of how our arrogant and inflexible economic advice to Yeltsin’s reformers contributed to a resurgent autocratic Russia has yet to be told. But to summarize, at the time, the Russians were very open to western ideas and reforms, but we gave them absolutely terrible advice that devastated their economy and resulted in the sale of the entire nationalized economy at file-sale prices to corrupt oligarchs. It was horribly mismanaged, and mostly because the Russians did exactly what we told them to. The subsequent economic privations (inflation, poverty, lawlessness, incredible income inequality) created the conditions for Putin’s emergence and his (and the Russian people’s) current hostility to western ideas. We are not yet in another cold war, but losing Russia could prove to be a terrible, terrible blunder, of far greater consequence than what happens in Iraq.

There are other nominees I could suggest: the War on Drugs, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, or Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease (if you are Pat Buchanan). But I will finish with what I feel is the “slam dunk”.

I think the worst foreign policy disaster in American History, bar none, is the War of 1812. Many of the criticisms aimed at the Iraq war apply better to the War of 1812. It started in an ill-conceived, poorly planned, preemptive, Imperialist attempt to seize additional territory from Canada. While not using the exact word “cakewalk,” former President Jefferson advised his protegé, President Madison, that taking territory as far as Quebec would be a “mere matter of marching.” If you think our army is stretched thin now, you should examine the untrained militiamen we sent to do this job. Not only were they not provided with up-armored Humvees or body armor, they were expected to bring their own supplies and tents, were poorly trained, and many of them succumbed to disease. There was lots of “fragging” and desertions in the ranks. Generals on our own side were squabbling and two even fought a duel. Madison, who deserves the distinction of “best Founding Father who was the worst President,” was not, to put it kindly, “the decider” and never seemed able to make up his mind what should be done, or whom to believe among his many advisors.

Our Navy performed much better than our Army, but once in Toronto we committed atrocities, burning the Parliament and, for no good reason, their library. Our leaders failed to “connect the dots” and didn’t foresee, even after clear intelligence to the contrary, that the British were headed to Washington, DC, rather than Baltimore. Was it a “failure of imagination”, or some dark Diebold-(avant la lettre)-inspired conspiracy by Madison and his gerrymandering Vice President Eldredge Gerry?

Whatever it was, when the British troops attacked Washington, it was a humiliation. Madison wasn’t even reading a story about a pet goat to schoolchildren–he turned tail and ran out of town in a most undignified and cowardly way, leaving his wife Dolly behind to collect valuables from the White House before British Troops ate the dinner that was prepared for the President. British troops then torched the White House, along with the Treasury, the Library of Congress (a trove perhaps even more priceless than that in the Bagdad Museum) and many other public buildings in Washington. Our own people set the naval yards there on fire to prevent the capture of our ships.

The sack of our capital was humiliating, and the entire adventure ended in a stalemate. The country was the laughingstock across the capitals of Europe. This adventure didn’t make us any friends and delayed our emergence as a real world power for several generations.

Even though we got a totally awesome song out of it, I think this easily qualifies as the worst foreign policy blunder in history. It’s got the entire lexicon of foreign policy woe: arrogance, atrocity, conspiracy, death, diplomatic failure, disease, expense, humiliation, imperialism, incompetence, lost hearts-and-minds, poor intelligence, unjustifiable preemption, war, and waste.

But what do you think? What foreign policy mistake would you like to nominate?