The inevitable has happened in Iraq as its US-backed government and military have proven themselves unable to exercise any authority over the country without an American military presence on the ground. Shockingly, all that stuff George W. Bush told us about the Iraqis standing up so we could stand down was bullshit and the Iraqi Army consists of a bunch of guys who signed up for a paycheck, food, and a gun with every intention of bolting at the first hint of fighting. Hell, the South Vietnamese put up a better fight than this (and despite the clear and obvious parallels to the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam and the collapse of the Saigon regime, please remember that Iraq is not like Vietnam at all. Nope.)
Believe it or not, the history books a century from now would actually chalk up the Iraq War as a win if some kind of stable, democratic government run by something other than religious extremists or borderline terrorist groups had taken root. For a brief moment it looked like it could happen – the US troops left and everything didn't immediately collapse in a heap. The time for wishful thinking is over though, and we are now forced to confront the reality that this effort at "nation building" has gone about as well as any of our previous efforts.
This raises an important soul-searching question for the United States: What exactly are we good at anymore? At least during the Cold War we were able to prop up right-wing dictators or interfere with the internal politics of tinpot countries enough to ensure that the right strongman was "elected." Now we can't even do that right. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (where all efforts at Nation Building / winning Hearts and Minds have been abandoned and ground forces are now exclusively interdicting terrorists) have proven definitively that our conventional military power – honestly the only thing we have as a nation at this point that we can claim is Number One and not be fooling ourselves – is of limited use in the modern world. We're great at it. We can blow up your tanks, shoot down your planes, sink your ships, and bomb your cities into oblivion better than anyone else. The question is, so what? What good is that anymore? If we have to fight a conventional World War III with Russia or China – doubtful at best – we'll do quite well. With that an a bus pass, as my grandfather loved to say, you can get a ride on the bus.
We've ceded our strengths in manufacturing, education, and non-frivolous technology to the rest of the world. Our welfare state is an embarrassment. Our law enforcement and justice system are a case study in corruption. Our Congress and state legislatures are cautionary tales of what not to do. Other industrialized nations laugh at our health care system. Our standard of living is declining, wages have stagnated for three decades, and the rising cost of living is slowly making 99% of us poorer as we work longer hours with no mandated vacation or personal leave. Is the U.S. still a better place to live than the majority of the countries on Earth? Of course. But we're not comparing the U.S. to Chad. Compared to our peer group, it's hard to figure out what our strengths are anymore other than consuming energy, maintaining a giant stockpile of nuclear weapons, and having a big, powerful, expensive conventional military. Oh, and I guess we're pretty good at spying on everyone's telecommunications, although if I had to place a wager I'd bet the Israelis, Russians, or Swiss are even better at it.
The failure of the Iraq War creates some eerie similarities between the modern U.S. and the final years of the USSR. After wrecking its economy and standard of living with profligate military spending for thirty years, the Soviets found themselves pulling out of Afghanistan in defeat (and the government they installed had collapsed by 1991, too). The rest of the world, including the U.S., looked on and asked, "If you're spending that much on the military and you can't even win a war against a Stone Age country, what CAN you do?" It was a valid question. It is a valid question to ask ourselves as well. We've bled ourselves dry paying for two wars since 2002 and massive annual defense budgets every year for more than a half-century now. What do we have to show for it? Shouldn't we at least be able to do Military Stuff right? If we can't, what exactly do we have going for us?