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.”
History had rendered a verdict: The future belonged to America and to those who embraced the American way.
For anyone unwilling to accept that verdict, there was U.S. military power. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” journalist Thomas Friedman wrote in 1999. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
Then came 9/11, which left the almighty superpower looking less like history’s architect than its victim. From the outset, President George W. Bush’s response to this affront sought not simply to avert further attacks on the American homeland, but to quash suspicions that history might not be tilting in America’s direction after all.
“As long as the United States of America is determined and strong,” Bush assured the nation on Sept. 20, 2001, “this will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here and across the world.” As for those obstructing the onset of this age of liberty, the president dismissed them as “heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” destined to end up “in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”
So the “global war on terrorism” was implicitly — even primarily — an American war for global preeminence, waged to validate the claims of Washington’s post-Cold War consensus. Removing any doubts about U.S. determination and strength had become an imperative.
This meant unsheathing the hidden fist. After all, 20th-century wars, cold as well as hot, had played a central role in certifying American beliefs and practices. The Bush administration expected war in the 21st century to replicate this achievement. Affirming U.S. military primacy was the key to upholding American ideological and economic prescriptions. Around the world, Washington’s writ would become law.
From this perspective, designating Saddam Hussein as Enemy No. 1 made a great deal of sense. Granted, Iraq was not involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Hussein’s regime had only the most negligible links to al-Qaeda. And, of course, Iraq’s stockpile of nuclear and biological weapons turned out to be a figment of fevered imaginations. But critics who employed such facts to charge the Bush administration with deception or incompetence missed a larger point: The real aim of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to demonstrate that the United States still called the tune to which history marched. For such purposes, Hussein’s ramshackle regime presented an ideal target.
To choose war is always to roll the dice. In this case, however, given the weakness of Hussein’s legions and the self-evident might of the world’s sole superpower, the dice seemed loaded. All that remained was to win the inevitable victory and reap the rewards.
And for a tantalizing moment, victory seemed within reach. On March 20, 2003, U.S. forces entered Iraq. On April 9, Baghdad fell. On May 1, Bush, in naval aviator’s garb, landed on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln to celebrate what U.S. forces had achieved, with a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” providing a backdrop for his remarks.
The 9/11 hijackers had imagined that “they could . . . force our retreat from the world,” the president said. “They have failed.” Rather than retreating, America was on the march, with more victories to follow and history restored to its proper course. Speaking with characteristic certainty, Bush referred to Operation Iraqi Freedom in the past tense.
Yet, in Iraq, complications ensued. The war there had only just begun. It dragged on for years, claiming many victims. Prominent among them was the very future that Americans insisted was all but foreordained.
As measured by the number of U.S. troops killed, maimed or otherwise scarred, the Iraq war ranks as a comparatively modest affair. Even taking into account the far larger number of civilians killed, injured or displaced, Iraq trails well behind the really big wars of the modern era. Not casualties but consequences define the significance of this lamentable episode. There it ranks ahead of Korea and Vietnam — neither marking a decisive historical turn — and even alongside World War II. Back in 1945, the United States had accrued vast stores of moral and political capital. Thanks to Iraq, those stores are now all but depleted.
After Iraq, the future no longer bears the label “Made in the USA.” In places such as China, alternatives to liberal democracy stubbornly persist and show no signs of flagging. Where demands for democracy sound the loudest — as in the Arab world — the outcome may not favor liberal values. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the American model, today damaged and more than slightly tarnished, is only one among several.
Confidence that globalization will (or should) define the economic future has taken a nose dive. While we’ve been making war, rising economic powers have been making hay, frequently at American expense. At home, meanwhile, deference to the market has produced corruption, recklessness and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Furthermore, even if globalization works for the some, it’s by no means certain that it works for the many — a point to which Occupy Wall Street protesters insist on calling attention and one that political leaders ignore at their peril.
Only in the realm of military power has American dominance remained unquestioned, as politicians and generals constantly assert. Yet after years of fighting in Iraq, and with the Afghan war and other “overseas contingency operations” continuing, the value of that claim is fading. No doubt U.S. forces have matchless combat capabilities. Yet the sad fact is that they cannot be relied upon to win. Merely avoiding defeat has become a staggeringly expensive proposition.
The beliefs to which the end of the Cold War gave rise — liberal democracy triumphant, globalization as the next big thing and American dominion affirmed by a new way of war — have all come to rest in that unmarked grave reserved for failed ideas. Those who promoted and persisted in the Iraq war wielded the shovel that helped dig the hole. This defines their legacy.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and retired colonel in the U.S. Army, is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War” and editor of the forthcoming “The Short American Century: A Postmortem.”