In classical history, whenever a power found itself stronger than its neighbors, wars of conquest usually resulted. Besides the obvious advantage of setting your frontiers as far from the capital as possible, the tributes and levies from victories made life better for all the citizens of the empire. Generally, an empire would stop its expansion only upon one of three situations;
1. The decision by the empire that it had expanded as far as it could with the available forces at hand, to be extended or retracted as later conditions would determine. Examples of this would be the Roman and British empires;
2. The empire collapses from within, through corruption, insurrection, or the like. This may be seen in the fall of the Roman empire, or more recently in the collapse of Soviet Union;
3. An adversary successfully repels the invader, or else an opposing power makes aggression an undesirable risk. This may be illustrated by the uneasy border between France and Germany, and the Great Wall of China.
The rise of democratic republics in the last centuries of the second millennium changed all that. From men like Washington and Wellington, came the notion of armies which existed not for conquest principally, but to defeat foreign threats. Also at that time, alliances became firmer and more enduring, like the U.S.-U.K. alliance to eradicate international piracy in the 19th Century. This continued through the 20th Century, as two "World" wars were fought between opposing coalitions for a variety of reasons, including the survival of the regime. And it was in that environment that the United States rose to dominance in every major measure. By the end of the 20th Century, the USA was understood to be unmatched in military power, economic weight, and social influence. Not surprisingly, a number of nations began to fear American power, in terms of their own future.
Although the Soviet Union was no more, the Communist Party remained a force in the modern world. Also, Fascists left over from the German, Italian, and Japanese regimes of a half century ago had left their mark on a new generation. In addition to these, a new surge of religious violence by Islamic terrorists began to undermine stability in a number of Middle Eastern and Asian countries. As the 21st Century began, President-elect George W. Bush knew he had to plan to meet these threats.
The attacks on 9/11 irrevocably changed the world. Simply put, it is impossible to proceed under the old conditions. A loose confederacy of communists, fascists, and anti-American activists tried to stop the preparation for war, but in the end the Congress granted the needed authority and a U.S.-led coalition of nations invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq, putting pressure along the way on nearby regimes known to support or promote terrorist groups. Now, a year and a half after the fall of Baghdad, the United States is moving to its next stage in the operation.
Liberals often demand that the U.S. scale back operations, pointing to more than thirteen hundred U.S. military casualties, and many thousands of civilian losses. However, they do not understand the scope of the conflict, nor recognize that the civilian losses would have happened in other nations, had the U.S. not invaded Iraq. The distinction is that if the invasion had not happened, Saddam's terrorist-supporting regime would still exist, and with it, a dozen or so terrorist groups would still be based there, in all likelihood including Al Qaeda. As it is, while the loss of life is horrible, many terrorist leaders have been captured or killed, and the remaining organizations are disorganized and weakened. They can and will continue their 'Jihad' against the West, especially America, but the simple fact is, we are winning.
So, what next, assuming Iraq is stabilized in the next year or so? It's vital here, to understand the nature of the conflict.
It's no coincidence, that Anti-American sentiment is rising in many places. In the first place, Leftist groups are trying to work public mood against the American forces, just as the Communists did so well during the Vietnam War. This will be ongoing, but will not enjoy nearly the level of support and supply that happened when the Kremlin was around to sponsor them. Also, mainland European nations have agonized over the fact that where the United States was once a junior partner in their estimation, America now is self-sustaining in virtually every arena. While cooperation is necessary for everyone to profit as much as possible, the fact is that there are many proud nations forced to deal with the fact that they need the US' help, while America is truly and fully independent. This why so many French and German diplomats insist to anyone who will listen, that the U.S. is morally obligated to work with them; it is no longer conceivable to argue that the United States has a functional need of any nation's alliance.
This sounds arrogant, which is certainly the way that Europe and Africa and Asia have played it, but it's also important to understand the advantages to the American way of things. It is to everyone's benefit to eradicate international state-sponsored terrorism, and only the United States is ready and willing to take up that challenge. It is to everyone's benefit for new technologies to be developed to meet the future's energy needs, and only the United States has major corporations ready and willing to take up that challenge. It is to everyone's benefit for democratic republics to be the way of government in every major nation, and the United States is able and intent on pressing that advancement. Every nation in the world has people trying to match the U.S. success in commerce and technology; we allow more immigrants, by far, than any nation on the face of the earth. We send more charity food and materials to other nations, by far, than any other country. We allow every race and creed and culture to come here and become full citizens, something no other nation fully does. We are the only major nation on the face of the earth, which affirms that the government has no authority, except that the people grant it (the Communist governments claim to be the 'People's' republics, but do not allow grass-root political campaigns, or political debate, and brutally suppress dissent). We are the good guys, and the only nation both able and willing to do on a global scale, what we have been asked over and over to do on a national scale.
But for all the nobility of our ideals, we still face the limits I noted in the classical case. At some point the United States will either discover the limits to our powers and have to stop there, in which case some Middle East or Asian version of NATO will become vital to advancing our common goals (an enhanced SEATO, perhaps). Otherwise, we may fail because of indecision or weak willed command, or face some as-yet unforeseen enemy's rise to power.
This means that the next four years are critical. Fortunately, we seem to have a leader who understands that matter.