All proud empires pass away. They expand to a point where their dominion is unsustainable. However wide they cast their frontiers there is always a threat beyond, always some fearful and threatening people on the periphery seeking revenge or the security of a threatening alliance with an enemy. Dominion is never wholly secure and requires eternal vigilance. The rest of the world might shake its collective head in wonder and envy, but if it perceives a chink in the armour of power and overwhelming force it will take delight in prying that chink a little wider. And it is not simply a matter of force or a strong economy to sustain that force - - it is also a matter of will. If the people of the imperial power believe in and support the empire it can survive, but once that belief withers the whole structure buckles.
In 1899 the British Empire, anxious to finally secure the goldfields of Johannesburg, among other things, faced a small number of Boer farmers in the Orange Free State and Transvaal. James Morris in "Farewell the Trumpets" describes the Boers as "tight-knit, traditionalist, racist fundamentalists, living a life of absolutes in a tribal laager". What these people wanted was to be left in self-governing peace. Thirty-five thousand Boers took to arms, grouped in guerilla commandos that elected their own officers and knew the terrain. Facing them were eighty-five thousand British troops (450,000 by the end of the war), the largest army ever sent abroad by the British.
But the Boers were fighting for independence. "It is our country you want,"said Kruger, the Boer leader, to a British visitor. The British had never come up against such an enemy. They were trained in the old ways against relatively primitive people. Especially troublesome was the fact that the Boers were armed with modern weapons by Germany.
Eventually the British prevailed, but only by burning villages, creating concentration camps and building eight thousand defensive blockhouses (small forts) throughout the Boer lands, (one for every one and a half miles). There were atrocities on both sides. It was a very ugly war and aside from the protests of people outside the empire, most decent British people were dismayed at the brutality and the incompetence of the officers.
Up till now Britain had been led by a vocal group of imperialists whose views were similar to those of modern American neo-conservatives. They believed in the God-given abilities of their country to bring light, truth, progress and good government to the heathen and backward parts of the world. The British imperialists had dominated British policy from the time of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 until the Boer War - - "the greatest empire ever seen in the history of the world", ruling a quarter of the globe, benign and ensuring peace and security worldwide, the world's policeman. They were assisted by missionaries who helped undermine traditional values and settled beliefs everywhere they went.
In 1902 the half-truths and hypocrisy that lay behind the patchwork empire came crashing down, never to recover, although it took fifty more years for the empire to disintegrate. Foreigners saw that the British were vulnerable and local nationalists sensed an opportunity. The will to empire began to disintegrate at home and only a few diehards continued to struggle to revive the feeling of pride and determination, let alone that element of aggression so necessary to empire. The British still continued to believe that they were the greatest country in the world, as do some Conservatives up to the present time (sorry, America, you are not alone!), but few cared about the empire.
The parallels with the U.S today are too vivid to dismiss. First you have the stubborn and ill-informed neo-conservatives, Republican nationalists and populist ideologues who still believe that Americans are endowed by God Himself to bring progress and democracy to the world. Using a familiar brew of flag-waving, nationalism (disguised as patriotism) and barely camouflaged racism (indistinguishable from British imperialistic propaganda), they were determined to invade an independent country, this time for oil as opposed to gold. So out of touch were they that they were astonished to be confronted by an "insurgency" (a.k.a a struggle against foreign intervention). How, they asked, could anyone possibly resist the allure of American civilization? Had they bothered to read about the British invasion of (what became) Iraq in 1917 and the bloody nose given to British troops at Al Kut, not to mention subsequent upheavals caused by installing "democracy" on top of a tribal culture, they might have paused and used some common sense. But no one can tell them anything to this day. They still approvingly quote Henry Ford reputed remark: "History is bunk."
Faced with guerilla resistance and an Al Queda presence that hadn't existed under Saddam, it has taken twice as long as the British took to subdue the Boers to reduce the violence in Iraq. The current uneasy peace (hugely exaggerated in a compliant American media) is due not to the brilliant policies of Bush but partly to war weariness and to the deliberate American decision to arm the Sunnis and create three armed camps where none existed before, bribing dissidents to cooperate. Such a policy ensures a future eruption of violence unless the communal hatreds can be assuaged by some form of communal separation. The only other option is a return to a Saddam-like dictatorship. Meanwhile it is not practical to remove American troops completely if only because the oil majors need to feel secure enough to invest in Iraq, given the huge resentments and the threat of further violence.
This is actually a much greater disaster than the Boer War. Here you have the sole super-power inflicting a huge and unnecessary wound upon itself. American forces were indifferently led by senior officers with insufficient troops and equipment. They were unprepared for guerilla warfare and thought Iraq could be bombed into submission and the people would come forth and throw flowers. But all the hi-tech gizmos in the world cannot "win" a war against a determined guerilla army defending hearth and home. The right-wing commentators continue to blather and boast. They are by association complicit in the biggest national blunder seen since Hitler invaded Russia.
The world clearly perceives the limits of US power. It is a truism that the threat of force is more potent than actual warfare and that one should never use your armed forces except in extremis or in a clear case of self-defense. But breaking all the rules Bush recklessly used his military power and has gone on to threaten Iran, an even bigger nut to crack.
Joseph Stiglitz believes the Iraq war will cost eventually $3 trillion, as Bob Herbert says in the New York Times, "a cancer inside the America economy". The Administration, economically illiterate, seems to believe in the doctrine of the bottomless pool of cash without being willing to raise it. It cut taxes during a war and stood by while the Federal deficit increased by $2.5 trillion, much of which is directly attributable to the war. On top of that the taxpayer has to reckon on the cost over many years of treating and supporting the thousands of wounded. Meanwhile, an ideological unwillingness to oversee and control the credit card and mortgage industries is threatening to send the country into a possible stagflation. And still the war party talks about "winning" in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly bombing Iran. Only the resistance of a few brave and patriotic senior officers and CIA operatives prevent the disaster worsening.
No British Prime Minister in history ever did such a thorough job of weakening his country economically and militarily in such a short period of time! Carelessly conceived and incompetently managed, the people responsible cannot be granted the sobriquet "patriots" either at home or abroad.
In South Africa there was an appearance of resolution between the Boers and the British, who settled with their foes and incorporated them into a modern South Africa. The reality, however, was that the Boers were never reconciled and they eventually won, for a time, creating a Boer South Africa replete with apartheid policies. The British resoundingly lost in the long term.
History might be kind to the United States. Maybe a sensible and pragmatic US government will once again allow the country to be viewed by the world as benign and cooperative, a primus inter pares. Faced with the rise of China as a world power it is urgent to turn a new leaf and change the approach to the world, particular the world of the Middle East and Afghanistan.
If not, history will note that the undisputed hegemony of the United States lasted from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of Baghdad, one of the shortest lived empires on record.