In American history, every now and then we get a definitive ending. The crash of October 1929 ended the Roaring Twenties; VJ Day ended World War II. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq this month, while less dramatic, also marks the passing of an era.
Launched in 2003 amid assurances of a rapid victory, the war is ending nearly nine years later with the United States settling for considerably less. Undertaken to demonstrate our supremacy, the war has instead revealed the stark limits of American power. It has laid waste to the post-Cold War era of great expectations once thought to define the future.
Remember the 1990s, which opened with the Soviet Union in its death throes and the United States riding high? The Cold War reached a peaceful conclusion, and a new historical chapter, seemingly rich with promise, dawned. Led by the United States — its preeminence affirmed in 1991 by Operation Desert Storm — the world was moving from darkness into light.
While preparing Americans for their first military encounter with Saddam Hussein, President George H.W. Bush heralded the approach of a “new world order.” Lacking poetry, his formulation never caught on. So in Washington, politicians and commentators were soon vying to provide a more vivid rendering of the age. This effort yielded three broad claims.
The first claim was ideological: The collapse of communism signified the triumph of liberal democracy, a victory deemed definitive and irreversible; viable alternatives for organizing society had ceased to exist. The second claim was economic: The end of the Cold War had unleashed the forces of globalization; with the unimpeded movement of goods, capital, ideas and people, previously unimaginable opportunities for wealth creation beckoned. The third claim was military: Advanced information technology was revolutionizing warfare; armed forces able to exploit that revolution would gain unprecedented effectiveness.
Americans took it for granted that their own approach to democracy should and would apply universally. They believed themselves better positioned than any would-be competitor to capitalize on the promise of globalization. As for high-tech military power, Desert Storm had already testified to American prowess; what some were calling the Revolution in Military Affairs would translate a clear edge into permanent supremacy.
These claims together fostered an exuberance bordering on the ecstatic. “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation,” President Bill Clinton declared in his second inaugural address. As the “world’s greatest democracy” and with an economy that was “the strongest on Earth,” the United States, Clinton predicted, would soon “lead a whole world of democracies.”
Newt Gingrich’s vision tracked neatly with Clinton’s. “No country has ever had the potential to lead the entire human race the way America does today,” the Republican speaker of the House pronounced in 1996. “No country has ever had as many people of as many different backgrounds call on it . . . for advice about how to create free government, free markets, and a military that can operate within the rule of law.”