Something happens to countries when they become empires (real or metaphorical). Over time their ruling elites grow so affluent and insular that they lose discipline, and abandon the habits that made them great. They rationalize away evidence of internal decay, and ignore external threats in pursuit of their factional desires. And then one day, they discover they are empires no more.
Americans began hearing about this danger long before anyone ever called their nation an empire. The first volume of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, and 200 years later another Brit, Alistair Cooke, warned at the conclusion of the acclaimed PBS documentary America that the race was on in his beloved republic between decadence and dynamism. During the intervening years, each generation produced observers who thought they detected the beginning of the end for American civilization.
They were all wrong, but the current generation has produced something novel in our history that makes fear of decline more plausible: America has begun losing wars on a regular basis. In the 1970s it was run out of Indochina by Vietcong guerrillas. In the 1980s it withdrew from Lebanon after a terrorist attack. In the 1990s it fled Somalia rather than fight local warlords. And now it is preparing to retreat from Iraq. Even as we laud the fading heroes of World War Two as “the greatest generation,” we are establishing a pattern of defeat against lesser enemies that signals a profound loss of political will.
Everybody knows that the Iraq conflict could have been avoided if our leaders better understood the history and current conditions in the region. But the same might have been said of every conflict in our history, including the Civil War. If only Lincoln and the Republicans had understood how highly the South valued its slaves! Think of how many lives could have been saved!
If this generation of Americans is to act responsibly, it cannot walk away from what it has wrought in Iraq, nor can it ignore the character of the adversary that so bedevils it there. To quote an editorial in the July 8 New York Times, “Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Potentially destabilizing refugee flows could hit Jordan and Syria. Iran and Turkey could be tempted to make power grabs. Perhaps most important, the invasion has created a new stronghold from which terrorist activity could proliferate.”
Aside from the minor detail that most of the world’s oil is located in the same region, the Times seemed to capture the consequences of an American retreat quite well. But then, in a heroic non-sequitur, it called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Such “reasoning” isn’t just typical of the McClellan-esque mindset currently prevailing in the Democratic Party, it mirrors the emotionalism that got us into Iraq in the first place. Whether we like it or not, we are now responsible for Iraq. We must see the mission there through to a successful outcome, or accept history’s verdict that the children of America’s greatest generation were the moral equivalent of Gibbon’s later emperors.
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