|The Ottoman Empire of Turkey lasted nearly 600 years, from the 14th century to 1922. The Byzantine Empire lasted 1,100 years, from 330 to 1453 A.D. The Brits ruled the world for well over a century, as did the Moguls of India and too many Chinese emperors to count.
We can now say that the much-touted "American Empire" of the radicals in the Bush administration has seen its brief spring and summer and is approaching the snows of late December.
Two years, and the Great American Empire that the likes of Dick Cheney and the neocons dreamed of is gone, over, disappeared in the sandstorms of Iraq! Whoosh! And what a happy early death it is for such a flagrantly anti-American idea.
Only two years ago -- only one year ago -- only eight months ago -- the idea of a new American Empire, which would start with victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, was touted by ideologues and "intellectuals" such as Irving and Bill Kristol, Bernard Lewis, Paul Wolfowitz and all the other usual suspects. America was going to rule the world, they said over and over, as they sat safely in their comfy offices sending boys and girls from West Virginia and South Carolina out to fight and die for their illusions.
And what a glorious age it was going to be, as a grateful world spontaneously accepted all our good -- and not so good -- ideas and intentions.
And today? Well, today the nation's capital is filled instead with the oddest bunch of half-baked "mea culpas" and excuses for the Iraqi invasion that one could imagine. The respected magazine The New Republic, which, in the hubris that seems to have overtaken this city in the last two years, had broken with its liberal past and supported the war, just came out with a blazing cover: "Were We Wrong?" (More than 12 writers, most of them former true believers, tell in painstakingly self-indulgent prose that, yes, they were.)
The neocons -- that group of 30 to 35 radical empire-builders, inspired at different levels by a strange philosophical amalgam of the sheer uses of American power, by the expansion of Sharon's Israel into all of the Palestinian territories, and also by innocent ideas of the easy spread of American democracy -- are now found in various stages of embarrassing metaphorical undress.
Former uncritical war supporters such as Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, are turning against the administration for not making their dreams come true. Boot wrote recently in the Financial Times that the evidence of failure in Iraq was "evidence not of duplicity but of incompetence. Again." Another self-aggrandizing theory going around among them, particularly at the American Enterprise Institute, once a solid, moderate Republican think-tank and now the neocons' favored hothouse, is that the chaos in Iraq shows that, for Arab Muslim countries to become democratic, they have to go through an "Islamic period" like Iran's. (I rest my case on the absurdity of this discussion.)
Meanwhile, on the ground, where real Americans have to fight the war that these remote intellectuals devised for their own purposes and agendas, the uniformed military has pretty much won. The neocons' fair-haired boy, the sleek and slippery Ahmad Chalabi, is out, and an equally slippery, but at least effective, prime minister, Iyad Allawi, who has pulled off the incredible trick of being both an Iraqi Baathist and a CIA "asset," is in.
The U.S. military learned quickly and put into practice what the British could have told them from their experience at empire: Make deals with the tribal leaders, buy off local militias, and ease yourself out in as many functioning pieces and as swiftly as humanly possible.
In fact, on every level in Iraq, you see a return to past forms, which is what always happens in the dynamics of nations. Iyad Allawi is talking about using emergency rule against the multiple insurgencies, just as Saddam Hussein always did. Tribal leaders are taking over, and radical insurgency leaders like the Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr are making their deals in the shadows. Viva, Old Iraq!
Meanwhile, here in Washington in this strange and discomfiting era of American life, the just-released 9/11 Commission report contradicts virtually every single point that the administration made in going to war. Iraq did not in any important sense aid al-Qaida, the report says; and even leading Saudi officials, contrary to all attempts by the neocons to destroy Saudi influence in the U.S. by painting them with the guilt of 9/11, did not give money to al-Qaida.
Ah, but the story is far from over. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney continue to deny, vehemently and without qualification, that any of the reasons they gave for going to war were false (there WAS real collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaida before the war, both incredibly said last week). Only Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld may be having more doubts; he said recently, and honestly, that the U.S. may be winning on the ground but losing the broader struggle against Islamic extremism that is terrorism's source.
Meanwhile, the true-blue neocons remain cemented in their positions. Despite the disgrace of their judgments, not one has left the administration. To give only one indicator of their thinking, at a recent dinner party here, Donald Rumsfeld's head of management at the Pentagon stormed out when someone even questioned his statement that the next aim of the administration was to "overthrow the Saudi royal family."
So, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. It may have been an historically quick empire, but the dream, that seven-year itch of the fanatics that attempts to turn America into something it is not and was never meant to be, is still here in this city. It is quiescent for the moment, like mold in the closet.
Me? I'm relieved, but only tentatively. This great country was meant to be an example to mankind, a mixture of confidence before history and of humility before God; it was never meant to be a Sparta or a Roman legion or a dictator telling other cultures how to live at the point of a sword.
One dares to think: Maybe we can return to ourselves. But then one remembers to peer into the closet.