Today in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan we are experiencing a test in the limits of imperial power. On the face of it, the military might that Israel is projecting at Lebanon is overwhelming in its capacity to pulverise solid infrastructure and soft human bodies.
But whether this might is effective is quite another matter. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is following in the footsteps of his predecessor Ariel Sharon, who as defence minister in 1982 mounted an invasion of Lebanon to stop the country being used as a base for attacks on Israel.
The result was terrible death and suffering for the Lebanese people and military humiliation for the Israel Defence Forces. The constant pinprick of guerrilla attacks mounted by Hizbollah forced the Israelis to retreat southwards until in 2000 they abandoned Lebanon altogether.
Olmert is trying to avoid a similar disaster by keeping ground troops out of Lebanon and relying on airpower. How much damage this is doing to Hizbollah is doubtful. In any case, they are showing the capacity to hit back hard.
Hizbollah missiles have not just struck Haifa and sunk an Israeli warship. According to journalist Robert Fisk, they have also targeted a secret military tracking centre at Miron in northern Israel.
My guess is that the Hizbollah offensive - for that is what the raid that captured two Israeli soldiers amounted to - was coordinated with the Iranian regime. The anti-Israel speeches of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not please Western liberals, but they have gone down a storm in the Arab world.
The Hizbollah leadership no doubt has its own goals, but for Iran the new Lebanese war is a signal to the US that any Western campaign against Iran will have a high price. Meanwhile, the radical Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr warned last week that “we in Iraq will not sit with folded hands” while Israel attacks Lebanon.
George Bush may rage against Hizbollah, but he is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent New York Times report from Ramadi in western Iraq seemed to be describing Fort Apache.
US Marines live under constant siege, crowded together in stinking, sordid government offices. Guerrillas attack them, sometimes in groups of a hundred. Having tried everything else, the occupiers propose to raze much of the city centre and create their own version of Baghdad’s Green Zone.
The picture in Afghanistan is little better. British troops allegedly sent to aid the “reconstruction” effort - though what fool would imagine the Paras playing this kind of role? - have been drawn into a US-led offensive against resistance forces, dubbed the Taliban for propaganda purposes.
It isn’t going too well. A dawn raid last Saturday involving US, British, and Canadian troops discovered that most of the guerrillas they were seeking had gone. British soldiers find themselves hunkered down on the sites of old hill forts - maybe the same that their predecessors used during the unsuccessful British invasions of Afghanistan in the 1840s and the 1880s.
Watching the US’s “long war” unfold it’s hard not to draw parallels with past empires that overreached themselves. The Bush administration sought after 11 September 2001 to demonstrate its overwhelming power to crush its enemies, but has provoked resistance that it cannot defeat.
This doesn’t mean that the present situation is anything but extremely dangerous. If the Israeli operation in Lebanon is ineffective, then Olmert may hit out at Syria and Iran, which the US and Israel accuse of backing Hizbollah.
The Bush administration may well go along with such an escalation. Neo-conservatives such as William Kristol and Richard Perle have in recent weeks been denouncing Bush and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice for a policy of “appeasement” towards North Korea and Iran.
Under pressure from its right, the administration might back a widening of the war. But, wicked and destructive though such a policy would undoubtedly prove, it would demonstrate yet again that the assertion of imperial power is evoking resistance it cannot crush.