President Barack Obama will talk about "a promise kept" as he brings the last U.S. troops in Iraq "home for the holidays"; the neocons will try to spin the exit as "victory, at last"; but the hard truth is that the Iraq War has been a largely self-inflicted strategic defeat for the United States.
When the last U.S. convoys race for the Kuwaiti border in December, they will be as much in retreat as the Soviet army was when it withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. And, like the staggering Soviet Union then, the United States is reeling now from economic dislocations exacerbated by the overreach of empire.
Of course, the United States is not likely to undergo the political collapse that interred the Soviet system two years after its Afghan debacle ended, but Washington's vast overspending on imperial ambitions since World War II -- of which Iraq was one of the more egregious examples -- has buried the American Dream for many millions of Americans.
When all the costs are finally tallied -- including caring for wounded veterans -- the price tag for the Iraq War will surely exceed $1 trillion. Yet, Iraq totters as a failed state, crippled in its ability to meet the basic needs of its people and torn by sectarian violence. The big strategic winner, as the U.S. leaves, appears to be Iran with many of its Shiite allies now in top jobs in Iraq.
Plus, President George W. Bush's premature pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2002-03 allowed the Afghan War to drag on inconclusively, now passing the decade mark and costing hundreds of billions of dollars more.
The human cost, too, has been sickening, with nearly 4,500 American soldiers killed in Iraq and more than 1,800 dead in Afghanistan. The untallied death tolls for Iraqis and Afghans are even grimmer, with estimates of their fatalities in the hundreds of thousands.
Yet, the history did not have to go this way. This disaster was not inevitable. It was a catastrophe of choice.
Even after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration had chances to negotiate with the Taliban government in Afghanistan for the capture of al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. And even if a peaceful resolution were not possible, the opportunities were there in late 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden when he was holed up in the Tora Bora mountain range.
Instead, the headstrong Bush and the ambitious neoconservatives who surrounded him lost focus on al-Qaeda and concentrated on the dream of "regime change" in Iraq, Syria and Iran -- and then the isolation of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
Once the top names on Israel's enemies list had been erased, the thinking went, the Palestinians and other nearby Arabs would have no choice but to accept peace terms dictated by Israeli hard-liners. And, the victorious Bush would stand astride the Middle East as a modern-day Alexander the Great, a "war president" of historic majesty.
The hubris -- indeed the madness -- of this plan may now be apparent, but a decade ago, this scheme of violently reshaping the Middle East was quite the rage in Washington. The major news media oohed and aahed over Bush and his famous "gut," while the haughty neocons were the toast of the town.
When Bush's war bandwagon rolled past -- with the neocons at the controls -- nearly everyone who mattered clambered onboard, from star Democratic senators like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to the brightest lights of the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and on and on.
Those of us who raised doubts about the legality or the practicality of this dangerous adventure were ostracized as pariahs, people to be ignored or ridiculed. We were the sorts who simply didn't believe in "American exceptionalism."
Much as the economic wizards of the last decade insisted that the old laws of economics had been banished by newfangled financial instruments, like credit default swaps, the neocon ideologues believed that America's super-high-tech military machine was invulnerable to the crude roadside bombs that simple Arabs might be able to build.
That these parallel examples of arrogance -- on Wall Street and in Washington -- reached similarly destructive ends represents the core lesson of the Bush-43 era, a teaching moment that the neocons, the bankers and their various defenders in media and politics don't want the average American to absorb.