Someday, it may seem like history’s classic example of imperial overstretch. There was, after all, only one superpower left on this planet after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It was challenged by… well, next to no one. Or rather by a single jihadist, his modest set of followers, and an investment of perhaps $400,000-$500,000. Add in four hijacked commercial jet planes and some box cutters and you have the essence of 9/11, the “Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.” Thanks to those air strikes, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the top officials of their administration launched a “Global War on Terror,” a disaster now almost 17 years old and still spreading, which would have given Osama bin Laden the deepest satisfaction.
In response to that horrific but strangely modest attack on two American building complexes — the fourth hijacked plane, undoubtedly heading for the White House or the Capitol, went down in a field in Pennsylvania thanks to the resistance of its passengers — Bush and his officials tried to… well, not quite conquer the world, but control significant parts of it, largely by force of arms. It was a decision that gave imperial overreach new meaning. At the time, they bragged that they would focus on terror groups in no less than 60 countries. Today, it seems increasingly obvious that the response to 9/11 started the “sole superpower” on a path to decline. Though it has taken them a remarkably long time, even the top brass of the U.S. military finally seem to grasp in their own fashion just how disastrous it’s all been. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare makes strikingly clear today, that military now has an abiding urge to turn away from its war on terror and return to a far more comfortable and familiar world of success: the Cold War and the “containment” of Russia and China. In the end, with the wars of the last decade and a half still going on, this urge may prove to be imperial overstretch of a new kind, highlighting the remarkable inability of that military to learn anything from history, its own or anyone else’s.