It's been a long time since we've seen an election like midterm 2006. After all, it's a truism of our politics that Americans are almost never driven to the polls by foreign-policy issues, no less by a single one that dominates everything else, no less by a catastrophic war (and the presidential approval ratings that go with it). This strange phenomenon has been building since the moment, in May 2003, that George W. Bush stood under that White-House-prepared "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared "major combat operations have ended."
That "Top Gun" stunt -- when a cocky President helped pilot an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto a carrier deck and emerged into the golden glow of "magic hour light" (as his handlers then called it) -- was meant to give him the necessary victory photos to launch his 2004 presidential reelection campaign. As it turned out, that moment was but the first "milestone" on the path to Iraqi, and finally electoral, hell. Within mere months, those photos would prove useless for anyone but liberal bloggers. By now, they seem like artifacts from another age. On the way to the present "precipice" (or are we already over the edge?), there have been other memorable "milestones" -- from the President's July 2003 petulant "bring 'em on" taunt to Iraq's then forming insurgency to the Vice President's June 2005 "last throes" gaffe. All such statements have, by now, turned to dust in American mouths.
In the context of the history of great imperial powers, how remarkably quickly this has happened. An American President, ruling the last superpower on this or any other planet, and his party have been driven willy-nilly into global and domestic retreat a mere three-plus years after launching the invasion of their dreams, the one that was meant to start them on the path to controlling the planet -- and by one of the more ragtag minority rebellions imaginable. I'm speaking here, of course, of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, of perhaps 15,000 relatively lightly armed rebels whose main weapons have been the roadside bomb and the sniper's bullet. What a grim, bizarre spectacle it's been.
The Fall of the New Rome
But let's back up a moment. After such an election, a bit of history, however quick and potted, is in order -- in this case of the post-Cold War era of U.S. supremacy, now seemingly winding down. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to be followed by the relatively violence-free collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a brief moment of conceptual paralysis among leadership elites in this country, none of whom had even imagined the loss of the "Evil Empire" (in President Ronald Reagan's famous Star Wars-ian phrase) until it suddenly, miraculously evaporated. In this forgotten moment, we even heard hopeful mutterings about a "peace dividend" that would take all the extra military money that obviously was no longer needed to defend against a missing superpower and use it to rebuild America.
A mighty country, soon to be termed a "hyperpower," straddling the globe alone and without obvious enemies -- that should have been a formula for declaring victory (as many Cold Warriors promptly did) and acting accordingly (which none of them did). It should have been the moment for the Long Peace.
But in an enemy-less world, there was a small problem called the Pentagon (and the vast military-industrial complex that had grown up around it). So, while the peace-dividend-that-never-was vanished in the post-Cold-War morning fog, some new, prefab enemies did make their appearances with startling speed. They essentially had to.
These new dangers to our country were termed "rogue states," an obvious step or two down from a single Evil Empire. They were, in fact, so relatively weak militarily that you needed to pile them up into a conceptual heap to get an enemy that would keep an empire and its global network of bases in military restocking mode. Not too many years down the line, the Bush administration would indeed pile three of them up in just this way into the gloriously labeled "axis of evil"; this was that old Evil Empire rejiggered for midget powers (or alternatively the Axis powers of World War II shrunk to Mini-Me standards).
Back in 1990, Saddam Hussein, our former ally in a Persian Gulf struggle with Iran for regional supremacy, invaded Kuwait and, voilà!, you had the first Gulf War. His military, already weakened by its eight-year bloodletting with Iran, was not exactly a goliath for a superpower to reckon with; but Americans took a tip from the dictator (who liked to see images of himself puffed to gigantic proportions everywhere in his land), blew his face was up to Hitlerian size, and stuck it on every magazine and in every TV news report in town ("Showdown with Saddam"). His genuinely evil-dictator face took the place of a whole nuclear-armed Evil Empire, while American troops slaughtered helpless Iraqi conscripts, burying them alive in their own trenches or wiping them out from the air on the aptly named "Highway of Death" out of Kuwait City.
Not so long after, in 1992, under the aegis of then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a small group of unknown Defense Department staffers -- Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby, and Zalmay Khalilzad -" unveiled a new draft Defense Planning Guidance, a document for developing military strategy and planning Pentagon budgets. It was the first such since the Cold War ended and, leaked to the New York Times, it was denounced as an extremist vision and buried. As the website Right Web describes it, the document "called for massive increases in defense spending, the assertion of lone superpower status, the prevention of the emergence of any regional competitors, the use of preventive -- or preemptive -- force, and the idea of forsaking multilateralism if it didn't suit U.S. interests."
Sound familiar? No wonder. It was the very imperial program for eternal American dominance and endless war against the planet's rogue states that George W. Bush's administration would officially adopt. By then, Wolfowitz was the number two man at the Pentagon; Libby, the Vice President's good right hand; and Khalilzad was the new, post-invasion U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
In a post-9/11 atmosphere of belligerent fear, their program went mainstream. Having been attacked not by a rogue state but by a squad of 19 terrorists pledging allegiance to a stateless terrorist organization, we were "at war" with evil itself. By 2002, the administration had conducted a "successful" war in Afghanistan; the Taliban had been crushed; Osama bin Laden was MIA; and the neocons were riding high. The rest of us found ourselves in a Global War on Terror, or the Long War, or World War III, or even World War IV or whatever our rulers chose to call it that week. (As we would learn in Iraq, counting was not one of their skills.)
Dazzled beyond any reasonable imperial sense by the power to dominant that they believed American military superiority gave them, top Bush administration officials essentially proclaimed the U.S. an empire by fiat, a superduperpower the likes of which the world had never seen. In their infamous 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (essentially the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document recycled), they swore that we would remain so forever and feed the Pentagon so much money that it would be bulked up into the distant future to suppress any potential superpower or bloc of powers that might emerge.
They insisted that we would go our own way, strike whomever we pleased, torture anyone we wished, and jail without recourse anyone we cared to sweep up or kidnap anywhere on Earth. The rest of the world could either approve or be damned, but it would be full speed ahead for us. Their acolytes in right-wing think tanks and lobbying outfits around Washington, along with Washington's assembled punditry (and some liberal tag-alongs) declared the world on the verge of a Pax Americana and this nation the globe's New Rome.
In the meantime, domestically, Karl Rove and his pals were working to ensure that the Republican Party would be dominant against all challengers for a generation or more. This was to be a domestic version of "full spectrum dominance." The two -- the global Pax Americana and the Party's Pax Republicana seemed joined at the hip back then, each reinforcing the unilateral, don't-tread-on-me, I'll-do-anything-I-wish dominance of the other. It was Rovian Abramoffism at home and Cheney-izing Wolfowitzism abroad.
How deeply they misunderstood the nature of power in our world, and how thoroughly they miscalculated the limited nature of the power of the New Rome! If you want to take the measure of how far we've come since then, consider the spectacle of this last election season. Take Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Like the President, deep into this September he was still excoriating the Democrats not just for their positions on the Iraq War, but for their "surrender" policies in the war on terror. As he put it in a PBS interview with Jim Lehrer on September 14th: