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Iraq Repeats Long-Ago Mistakes in the Philippines

by Michael D. Richards and Jeffrey E. Key on May 12, 2004

Let's stop looking to Vietnam in the 1960s for clues about what to do in Iraq. If the Bush administration wants a little help from history, it should instead examine U.S. policy in the Philippines in the first years of the 20th century.

In Vietnam, the United States supported the losing side in a civil war. In the Philippines, the United States supported the Filipino independence movement by toppling the colonial Spanish government. Then, however, it installed another colonial regime, its own. After ousting Saddam Hussein, Washington is in the process of doing roughly the same thing in Iraq: setting up a government that will serve American interests.

The bitter American experience in the Philippines provides a clear object lesson in how to handle the Iraqi situation. And that lesson is to do what so many people now urge: stop exercising unilateral authority like an imperial power.

After winning the Spanish-American War and annexing the Philippines in 1898, the United States didn't anticipate that the Filipinos would have their own ideas about how to govern their country. President McKinley's administration believed the Filipinos were not yet ready for independence. It implicitly accepted Rudyard Kipling's challenge in his poem "The White Man's Burden" to shoulder responsibility for those McKinley's viceroy in the Philippines, William Howard Taft, called "our little brown brothers."

Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the original Filipino independence movement against the Spanish, was shocked by the American decision to take over the Philippines. He responded to American enthusiasm for empire by organizing a guerrilla campaign that lasted from 1899 to 1901. Fighting against the guerrillas eventually involved about three-quarters of the American army at that time, roughly 75,000 troops. It was a costly war: Americans suffered some 6,000 dead and wounded. Perhaps 20,000 Filipino soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians were casualties.

The current dilemma in Iraq looks remarkably like the one we faced in the Philippines. Having destroyed Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, we have set out to construct a political system to our liking. Similarly, we have been caught by surprise to find that those we liberated have their own views about the political system they wish to live under. Iraqis view the United States as an interloper, an obstacle to Iraqi self-determination.

Based on our experience in the Philippines, we can expect several more years of guerrilla campaigns resulting in thousands of American casualties and untold Iraqi suffering if we continue our current policy. With the U.S. occupation beginning its second year, no part of Iraq is safe for foreigners generally and Americans specifically.

The Sunni Triangle is not the American chief administrator Paul Bremer's only concern. Even those areas that were most amenable to the U.S. invasion because of their suffering under Saddam, the Shiite south and Kurdish north, are treacherous. Just as was the case in the Philippines, Iraqis began to make their own plans once the old regime disappeared.

Following our earlier policy in the Philippines of relying solely on military force will be counterproductive in Iraq. Negotiation and compromise will help us sort out Iraqi patriots from fanatical terrorists and Saddam loyalists. Some Iraqis' willingness to negotiate after the recent application of U.S. military power shows that some elements of the Iraqi resistance have gotten the point. Saddam is never coming back, and Washington will not allow Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious Shiite cleric, to come to power. But countless other challenges remain.

The Bush administration should ponder the American experience in the Philippines in another regard. The president has options in Iraq that McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor in office after his assassination, did not have in the Philippines. The existence of international institutions that can help provide security and aid for reconstruction represents a major difference between then and now.

NATO must take over responsibility for providing security in Iraq. This step will make the large U.S. troop presence more palatable to Iraqis. Likewise, the European Union must coordinate reconstruction efforts. European governments will be more willing contributors if their firms can profit from the process.

The United States can't lay down its current burden anytime soon, but it can begin immediately to share that burden with international institutions and other nations.


Michael Richards teaches modern European and world history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and is a writer for the History News Service.

Jeffrey E. Key teaches in the department of government at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va. He also writes for the History News Service.