It was inevitable that this war waged through the backdoor would end in the implosion of the Bush Administration we are now witnessing five years on. Without the legitimacy of public opinion behind it the political objectives for which military might was deployed in Iraq could not be achieved, either at home or abroad. That's, like, Political Science 101.
Aside from the tragic carnage all around, the strategic cost to American power has been enormous. Above all, US prestige -- its soft power-- has been gravely damaged. As a model for others, America has lost its luster. Even Francis Fukuyama, originally a cheerleader for the war who is now no longer even a neo-conservative, acknowledges the grim picture: "The American model has come to be symbolized less by the Statue of LIberty than by the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib," he says.
Some argue that when the debacle of the Iraq war and the ruinous policies of the Bush administration are behind us all will be well once again, just as after Vietnam. Our prestige will return to the high ground and America will once more command the allegiance of hearts and minds globally.
It is certainly true that market democracies, most particularly the US with its flexible culture, are self-correcting because of the robust feedback open societies afford. We learn, we change. But self-correction does not mean a return to the status quo ante but to forward evolution based on new conditions.
In the Vietnam years, the world remained frozen within the Cold War framework both geopolitically and geoculturally. The Cold War prevented globalization--the freer flow of capital, skills, information and technology across borders--from taking place. This has not been true in the years since the invasion of Iraq.
In our age of future shock and accelerated change, a torrent of transformation has flowed under the bridge. iPods, YouTube, MySpace or cell phones that take pictures didn't exist at all in 2002. Al-Jazeera was in its infancy. North Korea hadn't exploded a nuclear bomb. Israel hadn't been beaten to a standstill by Hezbollah. Global warming was not a mainstream political issue. And China continued to grow at 9 per cent per year every year during that period.
The changes in this period didn't start from scratch but had a running start. During the previous eight years of the Clinton presidency, it was American-led globalization that helped unleash the torrent of transformation. Paradoxically, that globalization has both bound America through interdependence (for example through the trade deficit with China that finances our consumption) and constrained its power through fostering a devolution of power to other centers, including "emerging market" countries like Brazil which have become established players.
Moreover, the current backlash against the downside of freer trade and more open markets is also aimed at America. Where countries have been successful under globalization, China for example, they want to make their own way apart from US domination. To the extent countries have failed under globalization, for example Argentina, they blame the US.
The multipolar world order now emerging -both culturally and geopolitically - was already in the birth canal. Paradoxically, it was the reaction incited by the muscular unilateralism of the Bush administration that finally pushed it out of its post-Cold War womb. In a way, America's waning soft-power is the midwife of the new cultural self-assertion around the world.
Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, the years since the Iraq invasion have led to a jaded view in world public opinion of the universalist claims of America's soft power. It turns out that even this historically exceptional nation, guarantor without peer of the liberal world order, retreated like any other country from its principles when fear narrowed its perception of national interest. Traumatic as these years have been for America, it is no longer the same in the eyes of the world. Its beacon has dimmed irreparably.