Robert M. Gates, US Secretary of Defense, wrote in Foreign Affairs, “The United States is unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of those in Afghanistan or Iraq any time soon - that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire.”
This statement is close to admitting that the invasions were mistakes, that the dangers they were designed to suppress were not commensurate with the cost of suppression. One might then ask, why not bring the troops home at once, or as soon as logistically possible? Why plan on leaving 50,000 or more “residual” American troops in the occupied lands as an additional potential sacrifice in pursuit of a mistaken policy?
Gates continued: “In these situations, the effectiveness and credibility of the United States will only be as good as the effectiveness, credibility, and sustainability of its local partners.” Clearly, our local partners in Iraq and Afghanistan do not have these qualities. Their weakness requires US occupation and military sacrifice because the local elites do not have the power and ability to manage their countries nor the popular support to enforce their will.
The result was predictable: total reliance on the US military and US occupation forces. From time immemorial, these factors have always generated great increases in popular resistance. The foreign occupier violates native territoriality whether in Concord/ Lexington or in Jerusalem. The Tories were too weak to help the British occupiers of Massachusetts in 1776 and Herod could not control the Hebrews who revolted against Roman control of holy places..
The US had experienced this human phenomenon more recently. The leaders of South Vietnam made a mess of governing, alienated the population, crushed the subsistence farmers, created enemies of their regime as well as intense hatred of their American allies. After their complete victory in World War II, the allied forces were wiser, handing over power to the traditional elites in Germany and Japan, who were strong enough to manage their countries while taking general orders from the American conquerors who remained in the background – a strong contrast with Iraq and Afghanistan where the corrupt leaders alienated the local population. It is difficult if not impossible for a foreign occupier to rule without an effective native government to do its bidding. Such governments do not exist in Iraq and Afghanistan, another reason for immediate withdrawal.
Theoretically, as the only superpower, United States hegemony over Planet Earth can be maintained in a variety of ways. The current structure of military dominance relies on supporting the elites in the more than 140 countries where there are at least 750 US military bases. This military system puts the US in defense of ruling regimes in case of insurgency even without formal treaties. However, the military and financial costs may be too great even for the USA, a nation with only 6% of the earth’s humans but a grand 25% of the world's product. The military bases imply ultimate protection of the rulers and a degree of military occupation that inspires resentment of the US by local nationalists who will find ways of attacking the superpower.
But America has other traditions - of openness, of welcoming immigrants, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, of constitutional government, of breaking social and sexual and racial barriers. It does not need to follow the Roman model of military empire of crushing resistance wherever it appears. America’s soft powers, its leadership in assimilation, its remarkable prosperity, its richness in ideas and technology, give it the opportunity to break the Roman pattern of legionary discipline with a benevolent leadership that relies on economic, social and moral persuasion. Even the flaws of America, its aggressiveness, its occasional meanness, its arrogance, so perfectly reflect the best and the worst of the human condition – a sort of Paradise Lost – but remembered.