Monday, May 3, 2004

History Lesson

From History News Network:

“A splendid little war,” the secretary of state called the brief, victorious action. “Benevolent assimilation” was the name of the White House policy that guided U.S. occupation forces. “It should be the earnest and paramount aim of the military administration,” the president wrote, “to win the confidence, respect and affection of the inhabitants by assuring them in every possible way [the] full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of a free people substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.”

Not a bad description of the war and postwar goals of the United States in Iraq. A bit dated, however. The year was 1899. John Hay was secretary of state; the president was William F. McKinley and their subject was America’s occupation of the Philippines, after our victory in the Spanish-American War. Hay’s and McKinley’s current successors should have given their experience some careful study. The strategic confusion, administrative backtracking, mixed signals and mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq bear a striking — and worrisome — resemblance to what happened in the Philippines a century ago.

The decision to go to war with Spain, as was the case with Iraq, was made and marketed in a hurry. McKinley had a real incident to deal with: an explosion had severely damaged the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor. A hastily convened Navy inquiry concluded that the probable cause was a mine — obviously Spanish, the press and pro-war politicians concluded. (Ultimately, it was found to have been a fire in a bunker adjacent to a magazine.) War fever soared, fueled by atrocity stories about Spain’s harsh treatment of Cuban rebels.

It was not Cuba, however, but Spain’s colony in the Philippines that the victorious Americans occupied. McKinley’s expansionist advisors — Theodore Roosevelt and the Navy strategist Alfred T. Mahan — had long advocated a U.S. strategic presence across the Pacific. It was Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, who ordered Adm. George Dewey to engage the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Victory was swift and complete.

What, then, to do with the Filipinos? Many distinguished Americans, among them Mark Twain, former President Grover Cleveland and Harvard President Charles Eliot, opposed the idea of an anti-colonial country acquiring a colony. Most Filipinos wanted independence. Well-armed local militias had already fought the Spanish governors, and Dewey, for one, wanted to support them. In the end, however, Washington’s hawks won the argument: McKinley, who had to search for the Philippines on a map, decided its people needed American guidance to be really free.

A peace might have held, if the U.S. government had agreed to a protectorate. Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of what was fast becoming a Philippine national army and not yet fiercely anti-American, liked the idea because it would allow his country to develop with a goal of ultimate independence. But McKinley dithered. When he finally decided on annexation, the opportunity for compromise had expired. By February 1899, Aguinaldo’s army and newly arrived U.S. infantry reinforcements were shooting it out.

McKinley’s assurances of “individual rights and liberties” for Filipinos went up in smoke, as village after village was torched. Angered by guerrilla ambushes, U.S. volunteers, most of them racist to begin with, eagerly executed the “kill-and-burn” orders of their Indian-fighter commanders. In turn, Aguinaldo’s men slaughtered isolated American units, whose comrades responded in kind. U.S. reinforcements kept arriving. By mid-1900, 75,000 U.S. troops were in action, almost two-thirds of the entire army.

Worried about the slaughter — “the blood-stained trenches around Manila, where every red drop, whether from the veins of an American soldier or a misguided Filipino, is anguish to my heart” — McKinley turned to civilian leadership. William Howard Taft was dispatched to the Philippines to become the archipelago’s first civilian chief executive, to the chagrin of Brig. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, who as military governor had sought to keep civilians out. Under Taft’s leadership, the Americans sponsored huge programs in education, public health and economic improvement. Meanwhile, MacArthur’s army ruthlessly pacified the country, ignoring its civilian advisors. Filipinos were alternately terrified, gratified and confused.

On July 4,1902, President Roosevelt officially declared the end of the “great insurrection.” It had lasted more than three years. American casualties were 4,234 dead, almost 3,000 wounded. Thousands more died later of diseases they had contracted in the Philippines. The American casualty count in the Philippines was almost 10 times what it was during the Spanish-American War. Some 20,000 Filipino soldiers were killed. Nearly 200,000 civilians died in the insurrection, either from the actual fighting or from the disease and pestilence it spawned.

Despite Roosevelt’s announcement, heavy fighting continued until 1913, largely against the Moros, the archipelago’s implacable Muslim minority. Taft imported shiploads of eager young American teachers to set up a nationwide public education system for his “little brown brothers.” Commerce in the archipelago picked up, although the economy was rigged to help American exporters. The first legislative elections were held in 1907. By 1910, having weathered a decade of spasmodic “good-cop, bad-cop” U.S. governance, Filipinos were not doing badly. “Americanized,” historian Stanley Karnow put it, “without becoming Americans,” they were at last enjoying something close to McKinley’s promised peace.

Throughout the long decade, however, the Americans made costly and needless mistakes. They occupied the islands without knowing a thing about them — and never took the time to learn. McKinley’s pledge to “Christianize” the Philippines sounded odd to overwhelmingly Catholic Filipinos. Nor did they think of themselves as “aborigines.” During the first year of occupation, American administration was vacillating and inconsistent. Annexation was imposed without explaining it to the Filipinos, whose Malay-Latino culture was held in contempt by the Americans. Communications between occupiers and the occupied was generally lacking, except for the few Filipino leaders who understood English. Worst of all was the contradiction between the occupiers’ lofty democratic proclamations and their alternately repressive and patronizing behavior.

Yet, in comparison with the U.S. challenge in Iraq, McKinley had it easy. The Philippines in 1899 was largely agricultural, a land of small farms and villages with only one large city. The population of 21st century Iraq is 70 percent urban, and its vastly more complex infrastructure is now in ruins. In the sequestered world of the early 1900s, Americans could run their colonial occupation without outside interference. There were no denunciations from fatwa-quoting mullahs in Egypt and Pakistan, no Al Jazeera cameramen feeding anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, no troublesome kibitzing from Europe and the U.N.

McKinley’s goal was simply annexation — “benevolent assimilation,” as he put it. President Bush’s goal for Iraq is far more ambitious: to create a new working democracy as soon as possible. “America’s interests in security and America’s belief in liberty both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq,” Bush said in February. But with suicidal guerrillas roaming the streets of Baghdad, basic services such as water and electricity unreliable and local law enforcement almost nonexistent, the costs in men, material and attention could dwarf those experienced in the Philippines. Happily for McKinley, he never had to face such perilous choices in his occupation, nor worry about equally pressing problems in North Korea, Afghanistan and the West Bank

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We get attacked by one country or group based in that country – Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan – and we respond by attacking and annexing another – Iraq. This is the price we pay for having a president who is “incurious” about history.