A decade has passed since our nation embarked on its imperial debacle in Iraq, and there has been a lot of commentary and remembrance in the media, and little from our political elites, most of whom supported it. I'd like to think of it in more historical terms, since the invasion of Iraq is a moment that I believe a century hence will be seen as a major turning point in this country's history.
All empires fall, and the rot typically sets in well before the columns of the imperial edifice crumble. The harbingers of decline often come in the midst of what might appear to be an empire's apogee, and the invasion of Iraq is a great example of this phenomenon. After the Cold War, America bestrode the earth like a colossus, the biggest kid on the block and the only remaining superpower. During the 1990s, this power was usually wedded to upholding the order prescribed by the "international community." The US intervened in the Gulf and the Balkans, in both cases with significant international support.
During those heady years, we heard folks like Francis Fukuyama theorize an "end to history," meaning that capitalist democracy, in the wake of communism's defeat, would soon engulf the world and perpetual peace would be the result. Alas, the events of September 11, 2001, proved such hopes to be ill founded. With neo-conservatives seated in the halls of power, they used this unprecedented crisis as an opportunity to put America's singular power to work on a misbegotten crusade to remake the Middle East.
As we all know now, the war in Iraq, as well as the prolonged quagmire in Afghanistan, have exposed the American colossus' clay feet. I see a lot of parallels with the Boer War, when the British Empire provoked a conflict in South Africa that it eventually won, but which exposed its weaknesses, and whose atrocities called its supposed moral superiority into question. This war came at a time when Britain controlled a quarter of the globe and seemed to be unstoppable. Similarly, the US invasion, which promised that soldiers would be "greeted as liberators" brought grisly images from Abu Ghraib. American armies failed to secure the nation they invaded, standing idly by while looters trashed Iraq's cultural heritage. The American president declared "Mission Accomplished" with extreme bravado only to oversee a brutal and bloody guerrilla war that lasted for years afterward. That war bankrupted the American treasury, and is a much more significant cause of our fiscal woes -combined with the economic downturn- than our nation's social spending.
Nowadays the Obama administration is looking to cut back the military, and isolationist conservatives like Rand Paul are back on the scene, after being all but absent since the 1930s. China is flexing its muscles, and the Middle East is democratizing itself with regimes that are not always friendly with the United States. The Cheney-Rice-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz fever dream of a dominant American empire able to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, the will of others be damned turned out to be a dangerous illusion. The United States will never have the global power it did ten years ago.
On a personal note, I find some delicious irony in the fact when I was protesting the push to war and taking verbal abuse from the nationalist horde, I was actually supporting, in a roundabout way, the preservation of American power abroad. Those who called me a traitor blindly followed the neo-con pied pipers to their beloved empire's destruction. Of course, they still won't admit they were wrong.