In politics, a quagmire refers to a dangerous and usually complex situation which is difficult to get out of. In literal terms, a quagmire is a soft, marshy area of land that gives way underfoot. Making your way through a quagmire is comparable to walking across quicksand.
In the United States, historians often talk about the Vietnam war as a “quagmire.” Quagmire theory holds that the US government got involved in Vietnam little by little, one step at a time. Eventually, the country was mired in the conflict and couldn’t get out.
The so-called “quagmire theory” was developed by the historian Arthur Schlessinger in his book The Bitter Heritage. Schlessinger argued that American presence in Vietnam was the result of “the triumph of the politics of inadvertence” and that the war itself was a “tragedy without villains.”
The concept was further explored in David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era.
In more recent times, analysts have borrowed the term “quagmire” to talk about American involvement in other conflicts, notably in Iraq. In March 2003, President George Bush announced the start of military action in Iraq. The war was widely criticized. Pundits, politicians, and protesters alike began referring to Iraq as a “quagmire.” Some went even further, arguing that the Iraq conflict was deeper and more inescapable than any quagmire:
“The further the U.S. and the world move from the fall of Baghdad on April 9th, the more it seems that the administration is correct: Iraq is not a quagmire. It is really a black hole,” said Daniel Smith, a retired colonel, a few months after the invasion. The Institute for Policy Research agreed, writing,
“the administration has plunged the U.S. over the lip–what is called the “event horizon”–of the human and financial black hole that is post-war Iraq. The significance of passing the astronomical event horizon is that whatever crosses it, even light, cannot recover or be recovered. It is a one-way trip down a “tunnel” at whose end there is no light, only crushing gravity.”
Still, the term quagmire stuck. It’s been used to describe the US presence in Afghanistan, as well as the ongoing involvement in Iraq. President Obama, who won his first term on a promise to get US troops out of Iraq, found that he was mired in the conflict. His critics claimed that Obama was carrying out the very type of small-bore, blinkered policies in Iraq which would lead the US deeper into a quagmire. Republican senator John McCain, who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, denounced Obama’s Iraq policy of “half measures,” saying, “this is incrementalism at its best — or worst.”
The term “quagmire” has even been used by writers trying to dissuade the US government from sending its military into Iran. In 2019, Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote that US involvement in Iran, no matter how carefully planned, would be the “mother of all quagmires: a conflict that would make the Iraq War — which I now deeply regret supporting — seem like a “cakewalk” by comparison.”