This week marks the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. As in Vietnam, this use of American force also failed, some would say catastrophically so. Why? That question has never been satisfactorily answered. It must be. The Bush administration invaded for three basic reasons. The first was that Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) posed a clear and present danger to the nation and the world at large. That was dead wrong. Second, the Bush team believed in the so-called “freedom agenda” in which democratising Iraq would (favourably) transform the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East. Democracy would spread to Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab states and one day to Iran. In that process, Israeli security would be guaranteed. Unfortunately, the geostrategic landscape was altered – for the worse and remains so. Third was the audacious conjuring of an “axis of evil,” bringing together three of the most unlikely partners in this constellation of villains. How Iraq and Iran, who fought each other in a bloody nine-year war, could become allies and then link with North Korea is baffling, if not a hallucination. Further, even suggesting that Saddam and al Qaeda were fellow travellers strained credulity. That made no difference. Nearly 4500 dead and over 30,000 wounded Americans, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties could not have more strongly refuted the cakewalk presumption. In retrospect, that serious, smart and experienced people could concoct such a rationale for war seems inconceivable without digging further. September 11 was the catalyst. After that fateful day, any White House and administration would be paranoid about preventing another attack or attacks. Suppose, for example, American iconic sites, such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, had been destroyed or cities struck by terrorists employing chemical, biological or cyber weapons. No president could tolerate that. Hence, prevention became politically existential. After the 1991 war, Iraq’s military had been defanged and the US imposed no-fly zones over that country eliminated any dangers. Saddam was bottled up and neutered. However, the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act called for the removal of Saddam. Under no circumstances was the Bush administration going to take any chances, no matter how remote, to prevent a single fearsome “mushroom-shaped cloud” from blooming over America. Assuring the absolute security of the nation became a top priority. The PATRIOT Act and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security would follow. Not all agree that both improved US security. The Afghan intervention and the sudden collapse of the Taliban government with minimum use of American force created the impression of a military that could accomplish virtually anything, no matter the nature of the challenge. As White House crosshairs centred on Iraq, seeming American military invincibility reinforced by the illusion that Iraqis would welcome invaders with “flowers and candy,” created the false impression that an attack would be a “cakewalk.” It was a cakewalk until it wasn’t. Nearly 4500 dead and over 30,000 wounded Americans, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties could not have more strongly refuted that presumption. However, what has been learned? America’s National Security and Defense Strategies do not reflect the most important conclusions for why the Iraq War failed. Both strategies regard China and Russia as the major competitors with Iran, North Korea and global extremism as lesser threats. The aims are to contain, deter and if war comes defeat or prevail over each. As flawed as the WMD argument and assumptions were, the current strategic aims are equally suspect. Have China and Russia been contained and deterred and if so from what? China has militarized tiny islets in its contiguous seas; embarked on a military buildup; and challenged the authority and leadership of the US and the Western rules-based international system. Russia has invaded Ukraine and just downed a US Predator drone over the Black Sea. Moscow has also “suspended” the remaining arms control agreement, New START, deployed formidable new strategic nuclear weapons and threatened to use them in Ukraine and to defend Russia from a Western attack. Further, China and Russia are joined in an unbreakable partnership some might mistakenly term a new “axis of evil.” What to do? In a perfectly rational world, a White House would take what went wrong in Iraq and overlay it on US policy and strategy for China and Russia. The starting point is challenging the assumptions of current policies (unlike what did not happen over Iraq) including whether a thermonuclear war can be won or not. But it is an imperfect world. Still, why the US wrongly invaded Iraq has relevance to today and the future. He writer is a senior advisor at Washington, DC’s Atlantic Council and a published author.