The Roman army of Trajan’s time was more powerful than the forces of the Parthians with which it contended for the province of Mesopotamia. Even so, the emperor was only able to secure the region for three years, probably because the area was far more important to the nearby Persians than it was to the distant Latins. Where the price of victory is greater than the prize, every victory is a defeat, which is why the analysts who claim that the Tet Offensive was an American victory are both quite correct and utterly wrong and also why we’ll probably show ourselves to the door in Iraq even more quickly than Trajan did.
The Persian Gulf is just about as far away from the United States as you can get on this planet. By the same rule that every suspicious mole will be located on the center of your back, fate seems determined to locate the center of gravity of world politics in the most inconvenient spot. But what is most relevant strategically is not linear distance but a more complicated interval that takes into account cultural as well as geographical remoteness. It costs a lot to ship men and material to the Middle East. It costs even more to figure out who's who and what’s what in the Iraqi world.
As it is, we’re like some rube who horns in on a conversation in a bar, a conversation about things we don’t understand conducted in a language we don’t speak. True, the fact that we’re packing a gun and distributing bribes gets us noticed, but that doesn’t change the fact that our childishly simple view of the world is quite incommensurate with the concerns and values of the patrons. Shooting some of them for looking at us funny turns out to have only a marginal and temporary benefit.
You have to be a fanatical ideologue or a cynical opportunist to believe that this sort of thing is really justifiable as a rational strategy. Imposing your will by main force on other people surely implies that you know what is best for them, unless, of course, it just means you don’t give a damn about them at all. But does anybody think that Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the inevitability of democracy is any better as a justification for imperialism than earlier enthusiasms for Romanitas, the conversion of the Indians, or the classless society? Theories of historical rationality inevitably turn into exercises of collective will. Just as those who believed in the eventual triumph of the proletariat quickly concluded that the dialectic helps those who help themselves, those who insist on the irresistible advance of the American Way have discovered that cluster bombs are the necessary secondary causes of the victory of the Good. It finally comes back to a question of will and power, and we just don’t have enough of either.