But an expansion of troop presence in the tens of thousands deep into the Arab heartland is a huge shift – the first real shift since the end of the Cold War [bold mine-DL]. And that makes this election a very profound one in many ways: it’s about the direction of the US – the meaning of the US – in a post-Cold War world. A permanent Iraq presence really does mean an imperial future for the US – revealed nakedly for what it is.

Replace Iraq with Saudi Arabia, rewind seventeen years and you could say exactly the same thing, because the “huge shift” occurred in the early ’90s and meaningful political resistance to that shift was never very great.  There seems to be a great need to act as if the invasion of Iraq marks a radical departure from the interventionism of the ’90s and the prolonged military presence in the Gulf, when it would have been unthinkable without both for a number of reasons.  Without the presence in the Gulf, the embargo of Iraq and the ten-year air war against Iraq, it is difficult to imagine what else would have so motivated predominantly Saudi terrorists to strike at the U.S., but more directly it is impossible to imagine anyone believing Iraq to pose a threat to the U.S. had we not spent an entire decade treating Iraq as a bombing range and viewing its government as our principal foe in the world.   

That is another thing about mission creep and empire-building: it can always be described in the beginning as an act of defense (even if interventionist or hostile policies that helped pave the way for an attack had been in place long before).  Even if you take the initial claim of self-defense to be true, it is the persistence in maintaining control or a military presence in places where none is needed any longer that separates empires from other powers.  That is why in a very meaningful way our involvement in WWI had no meaningfully imperialistic overtones to it; it was a bad idea, but it was not a case of imperialism of any kind because all of our forces came home once the war was over.  Indeed, the problem with our involvement with WWI was its crusading anti-imperialism directed at other states. 

Rome eventually dismembered Pontus in response to an attack on Roman citizens in Asia, and it occupied Egypt when the latter took sides in the civil wars, but then the Romans never left.  Their empire expanded by fits and starts, and often they acquired new provinces through some wars that could fairly be described as defensive (as well as some that were cases of out-and-out aggression), but it was above all the decision to remain and oversee these new lands, whether through intermediaries or directly, that made them what everyone acknowledges to be an empire.

James’ observation is correct, but aside from being another occasion to say that popular opinion is no guide to making good policy I would add that the frequent comparisons made between a long-term presence in Iraq and other long-term presences in Korea, Germany and elsewhere makes for an exceptionally good reason to leave Iraq immediately.  It is clear that people easily become accustomed to the idea of long-term presences in other countries, which is why they should not be given the time to get accustomed to the idea.  The long-term deployments in Korea, Germany and elsewhere, whatever legitimate and appropriate purpose they once served, are no longer necessary.  A long-term presence in Iraq is not now and never will be necessary, so whether or not “the American people” will accept it misses the point: they have continued to accept long-term deployments and alliances long after these became obsolete, which suggests that the people’s willingness to accept outdated and unnecessary policies should not be a factor in embarking on a genuinely foolish and costly course of action. 

Washington made the choice to undertake the “huge shift” without any real consultation or consent from the people in 1991, and so we remained in the Gulf and around the world.  Leaving Iraq would be a first step to correcting that error.