When the history of the Iraq war is written, the question of who lost it and how it was lost will be paramount, yet the answer is clear enough even today. The seeds of defeat were sown long ago, and not just by the policymakers and authors of our present disastrous policy. The co-authors of defeat in Iraq are the politicians and the U.S. military, both of whom are constrained by the internal political dynamics of U.S. imperialism. The military deficiencies that some, like Sen. Harry Reid, have pointed to are not a matter of individual "incompetence" on the part of some generals: the inefficiencies are inherent in the system.
"Nothing could testify more powerfully to the failure of U.S. efforts on the ground in Iraq than a ramp-up in airstrikes. Calling in air is the last, desperate, and usually futile action of an army that is losing. If anyone still wonders whether the ‘surge’ is working, the increase in air strikes offers a definitive answer: it isn’t."
Civilian casualties are way up but who cares? Not the Americans, who are so fixated on the internal politics of the war the "battles" raging in Washington, D.C. that they don’t have either the time or the inclination to pay attention to the "metrics" coming out of Iraq.
Besides which, as Yglesias reminds us, the Pentagon doesn’t bother keeping track of Iraqi casualties. In a war for hearts and minds, however, the civilian casualty rate is a big indicator of American (or insurgent) success: the higher the rate, the lower are the chances that the U.S. can pull it off. After all, we are aiming presumably to give the Iraqis the security within which they can resolve their intractable political situation and begin to stand up (so we can stand down), but the bureaucratic and political imperatives of the imperial system that is evolving in Iraq and everywhere else the American footprint is large override the strategic requirements of fighting a successful war, as this story makes all too clear:
"The Air Force feels left out of the counterinsurgency debate. What’s particularly galling to some officials is that the role of air power was relegated to a five-page annex at the back of the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. Setting out to rectify that perceived shortcoming, the Air Force is drafting its own manual for irregular warfare, due out this summer. And officials are speaking out about air power’s contribution to labor-intensive irregular warfare, seen as the domain of the U.S. military’s ground pounders."
The war on the ground in Iraq must take a back seat to the ongoing war within the U.S. military between the "air power" boys and the "ground pounders." Everybody wants a piece of the action except, of course, when it comes time to take responsibility for defeat, which is even now looming large in the Pentagon’s nightmares.
One of the chief weaknesses of imperialism is that empires have their own internal dynamics, which don’t always conform to the requirements of external military and diplomatic policy. The only hearts and minds the American military seems to care about are those in Washington: winning over the Iraqi people is incidental, because the incentives work the other way. The Air Force has to show it is part of the solution in Iraq, whether or not it can actually play a significant positive role on the battlefield, because that is the road to increased pull on the Hill and in the White House, which means more funding. Within the Empire are all these little empires, competing for tax dollars, prestige, and political primacy, and it is this civil war always being fought, albeit at various levels of intensity that is the ultimate undoing of the imperial order.
It doesn’t matter that air power exacerbates the problem in Iraq, rather than solving it. It doesn’t matter that we’re alienating ordinary Iraqis, who often are the victims of U.S. air raids; all that matters is that the Air Force’s rivalry with the Army (and the Navy) requires air strikes. What determines our "strategy" is a shifting concatenation of competing agencies and political factions that meet on the battlefield of congressional committees and the higher councils of U.S. policymakers. The outcome of this war the intra-bureaucratic turf war determines the strategy and conduct of the external war. And that is the road to certain defeat.
Rent by internal contradictions, the American Empire contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, and these are sown and nurtured by the sheer scope of it. I am reminded of an anecdote Rose Wilder Lane tells in her 1936 polemic Give Me Liberty: she had gone to Russia a convinced Communist and supporter of the October Revolution and was astonished to find that the "liberated" workers and peasants didn’t share her enthusiasm for the proletarian state. She got into a debate with a Russian peasant, who appeared impervious to the lure of Leninism:
"I drew for him a picture of Great Russia, to its remotest corner enjoying the equality, the peace, and the justly divided prosperity of his village. He shook his head sadly. ‘It is too big,’ he said. ‘Too big. At the top, it is too small. It will not work. In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great big head. No. Only God can know Russia.’"
The American Empire is being undone by its bigness no one can centrally plan such an enormous undertaking. The physical holdings of the Pentagon alone are so vast that they constitute a nation unto themselves, a huge empire as complex and far-flung as Great Russia then or now. The regime-changers in Washington are no better at planning the reconstruction of the Iraqi state than the central planners in the Kremlin were at building a modern industrial state out of a peasant-based economy.
The American Empire will end just as certainly and ignominiously as the Soviet Empire did and, perhaps, even more rapidly, on account of the economic factors involved. It’s true that our enormous wealth i.e., the boundless productive capacity of capitalism masks the true economic cost of war, to some degree. Yet, in the end, we may wind up being destroyed by the very market forces we are so intent on globalizing.
Empires cost money, and this one, as Garet Garrett wryly observed half a century ago, is unique in that "everything goes out and nothing comes in." The Romans exacted tribute from subject nations, seizing gold, slaves, and anything not nailed down. The American Imperium, on the other hand, is the Bizarro Empire, where U.S. taxpayers pay tribute to America’s local satraps, such as Egypt and Israel the two biggest recipients of our "foreign aid" program. We defend Japan and South Korea, allowing them to shelter under our military umbrella while they export finished goods to the American market and lend us the money to build an empire of bases around the world.
As Ron Paul tirelessly points out, the American welfare-warfare state is built on the shifting sands of an economic pump-priming perpetual motion machine, i.e., government debt. We are selling our children into slavery and bankrupting the nation: this is the price of empire, at least in purely economic terms. The price in blood ours, the Iraqis, and perhaps the Iranians and others in the not-too-distant future is higher still. Whether the American people are prepared to pay it is a question that is currently torturing our elites: this is the real heart of the Iraq war issue in American politics, and both parties seem committed to persuading us that the price of empire is worth it. The Democrats propose to do it on the cheap. They solemnly vow to fight future wars of conquest "smartly," while the Republicans are more extravagant and daring, with a devil-may-care attitude about the expenditure of troops and treasure in pursuit of "global hegemony," as the neocons like to put it.
The rise and fall of the Bizarro Empire is going to be an object lesson in how greatness, and liberty along with it, is lost. The story promises to be Spenglerian in its tragic denouement yet oddly inspiring in that the old republic survived as long as it did up until at least the fatal year 1917, when we were dragged into the Great War and the seeds of the next were planted. The beginning of the end was when America embarked on its long overseas crusade to make the world safe for democracy against the villain of the day. Twice the villains were Germans, and since then the Russians, the Iraqis, and now the "Islamofascists" have all had their turn. Tomorrow it may well be the Russians again, and then there’s always the Red Chinese, whom the Fates have entrusted with much of our debt a weapon more deadly than any H-bomb.
America, having exhausted itself militarily, economically, and spiritually, will one day be found washed up on some foreign shore, a hapless Gulliver overrun by hordes of angry Lilliputians and bound by a thousand threads to their feuds. When the history of the American Empire is written, any fair and objective author will have to concur that it didn’t have to turn out that way: if we choose the prerogatives of Empire over the ascetic ideals of our republican tradition, we go willingly to our doom.