When, in the future, historians discuss the decline of the United States as a world power, they will look back and peg the Iraq blunder as the turning point. They may also say it was the best thing that could have happened to this country, but that remains to be seen.

What will be very clear to future observers is that failure in Iraq was assured from the beginning. And not just because of incompetence and arrogance. Even with a competent administration, we would have failed because, as Edward Luttwak so ably examines in this month’s Harper’s magazine, it is no longer possible for a large conventional war machine like ours to defeat a dedicated local insurgency. The “targets” are invisible and the population will not or cannot cooperate with the invading forces. The only way a superpower can neutralize an insurgency, if not defeat it, is to out-terrorize the terrorists (which the American people, presumably, would never tolerate) ala Nazi Germany, or take over governing the country for a very long time and hope good government eventually wins over the population.

Since neither of these options is desirable, our incursion is doomed to failure, no matter how many troops we pour into the country.

But politically, the Bush administration feels it must try to do something to avoid a total admission of defeat, which this president would never tolerate. So his strategy is send in more troops and hope for a miracle.

And the Democrats will not actively oppose this desperate strategy because they don’t want to be blamed for the chaos resulting from withdrawl. They want the Republicans to get all the blame. Which means we’ll all wallow in this catastrophe for two more years until the 2008 election, then leave it to someone else to make the tough decisions.

But those will be two very costly years-in terms of lives, the nation’s treasury, and perhaps our future economic viability. This may well be a blunder our country will never fully recover from.

Worst of all, it has exposed our fragility as a superpower. Though we can level a country with a nuclear strike or chase a despot off his throne, we can do little else militarily. There are too many weapons of destruction available to any insurgency-partly due to our own arms industry-to allow us to subdue a nation and transform it into a democracy of our design. Our military might has been exposed as an illusion. This was the hard lesson we taught England during our Revolution. It is the lesson we should have learned in Vietnam.

Big War cannot defeat Small War.

In order for the U.S. to continue to exert superpower influence-presuming we still are a superpower when all the consequences of the Iraq blunder finish rippling-we need to change the rules of the game. We will have to create a world in which cooperation outduels competition. And we have to create that world now, while we’re still in a position to call the shots because if another superpower eclipses us economically (likely China or India or both) they will not have learned the lesson we are learning the hard way now.

That’s presuming we learn that lesson. We didn’t learn it in Vietnam. Now we’re getting our second dose, and we still seem reluctant to accept it. After two more utterly futile years, perhaps we’ll finally be ready. At that point, maybe the time will be right politically to start changing the rules.

If not, our long decline as a nation will continue.

That could yet be turned into a positive if we give up on our dreams of controlling the world and become a more willing member of the community of nations again. But it will not be an easy change for us. We will have to swallow a lot of pride and let go of our desperate need to be “Number 1.”

It will be comparable to the spiritual effort required to give up the Ring of Power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Better to destroy the ring, as Tolkien said, than to merely hand it off to the next dark lord.

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