“Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a Great War, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one.” So wrote British historian A.J.P. Taylor in 1961.

All the 20th century empires forgot the lesson and all perished of wounds suffered in Great Wars: the Ottoman, Russian Austro-Hungarian and German empires in World War I, the Japanese in World War II, the French and British the morning after.

Comes now the turn of the Americans. Guided through the Cold War by conservative statesmen like Eisenhower and Reagan, America rejected Churchillian romanticism and, even in the face of horrors like the butchery in Budapest in 1956, refused to risk the Great War. But now a triumphalist America has begun to behave like all the rest.

If Providence does not intrude, we will soon launch an imperial war on Iraq with all the “On-to-Berlin!” bravado with which French poilus and British Tommies marched in August 1914. But this invasion will not be the cakewalk neoconservatives predict. More likely, it will be the “bloody mess” of which Tony Cordesman warns.

Yet America will not be defeated by an Arab pariah state with an obsolete air force, a dozen 400-mile missiles, a population a tenth of ours, an economy 1% of ours, and neither satellites nor smart bombs.

Indeed, all 22 Arab nations have a total GDP smaller than Spain’s. None can defeat us and any that resorts to a weapon of mass destruction invites annihilation. And before any hostile Arab or Islamic regime can acquire an atomic weapon, the War Party wants to exploit this window of opportunity to smash them all.

But what comes after the celebratory gunfire when wicked Saddam is dead? Initially, the President and War Party will be seen as vindicated by victory and exhilarated by their new opportunity. For Iraq is key to the Middle East. With Iraq occupied, Syria will be hemmed in by Israeli, American, and Turkish power. Assad will have to pull his army out of Lebanon, so Sharon can go back in and settle scores with Hezbollah. Iran will be surrounded by U.S. power in Turkey, Iraq, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Arabian Sea.

This is the vision that intoxicates the neoconservatives who pine for a “World War IV” – a cakewalk conquest of Iraq followed by short sharp wars on Syria and Iran. Already Israel is tugging at our sleeve, reminding us not to forget Libya.

What is wrong with this vision? Only this. Just as Israel’s invasion of Lebanon ignited a guerrilla war that drove her bloodied army out after 18 years, a U.S. army in Baghdad will ignite calls for jihad from Morocco to Malaysia.

Pro-American regimes will be seen as impotent to prevent U.S. hegemony over the Islamic world. And just as monarchs who collaborated with Europe’s colonial powers were dethroned by nationalists in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Teheran and Addis Ababa, pro-American autocrats will be targeted by assassins.

A burst of gunfire could convert Jordan, Afghanistan or nuclear-armed Pakistan into an enemy overnight. And with Israelis generals blabbing about pre-positioned U.S. weapons and Bibi Netanyahu listing for Congressional committees all the Arab nations we must attack, Al Jazeera does not need shoe-leather reporting to let Islam know on whose behalf America has come to crush their armies and occupy their capitals.

Once in Baghdad, how do we get out? If the Kurds rebel to create a nation, will U.S. troops help Turks crush them? If the House of Saud falls, will it be succeeded by social democrats, or Bin Laden’s fanatics?

To destroy Saddam’s weapons, to democratize, defend and hold Iraq together, U.S. troops will be tied down for decades. Yet, terrorist attacks in liberated Iraq seem as certain as in liberated Afghanistan. For a militant Islam that holds in thrall scores of millions of true believers will never accept George Bush dictating the destiny of the Islamic world.

With our MacArthur Regency in Baghdad, Pax Americana will reach apogee. But then the tide recedes, for the one endeavor at which Islamic peoples excel is expelling imperial powers by terror and guerrilla war. They drove the Brits out of Palestine and Aden, the French out of Algeria, the Russians out of Afghanistan, the Americans out of Somalia and Beirut, the Israelis out of Lebanon.

Twelve years ago, this writer predicted that George Bush’s Gulf War would be “the first Arab-American War.” The coming war will not be the last. We have started up the road to empire and over the next hill we will meet those who went before. The only lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.