Wednesday, July 16, 2003

I think it's pretty official. Robert Wright was right in his March 2003 predictions about dubious and valid fears for Iraq.

Dubious fear No. 1: The war will be long and messy. Once the inevitability of the war's outcome becomes clear—within the first week or two—Saddam Hussein will have trouble preserving loyalty and may have trouble preserving his life. Sustained and widespread street fighting in Baghdad is unlikely. Streetside crowds of Iraqis cheering American and British soldiers are virtually guaranteed.

Valid fear No. 1: The postwar occupation will be very long and increasingly messy. The crowds who cheer us this spring will want us out by next spring. But we won't leave because, regardless of whether Iraqis are ready for democracy, President Bush won't be. If there's one thing that will scare this administration as much as Iraq being run by a ruthless dictator, it's Iraq being run by millions of Iraqis.

Iraq isn't Vietnam, but it sure as heck isn't Germany or Japan either. In fact of course it's Iraq, but unstudied history repeats itself often enough that some good historians are looking for a basis of comparison.

Peter Bales is assistant professor of history and political science at Queensborough Community College. He wrote an interesting article in Newsday recently, looking at American history in the Phillipines for some clues to bumps in the road ahead. Here's a sample.

As a history teacher, I am the first to admit that many of America's young people are horribly confused about the past. Many adults aren't much better, otherwise they would not be so befuddled by the events unfolding in Iraq. The chaos, the anger the Iraqis feel toward their American "liberators" and, most of all, the deadly guerrilla-style resistance. Anyone who knows our nation's history could have predicted it. It has all happened before.

Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, which Secretary of State John Hay called a "splendid little war," the United States replaced Spain as the colonial master of the Philippines. Voices that dared to inquire what occupying the Philippines had to do with the stated purpose of the war - liberating Cuba - were drowned out by victory cheers when formal hostilities lasted only a matter of months. Native Filipinos fighting the Spaniards had been grateful for American help, but they soon realized they were still wearing a Western yoke - this one colored red, white and blue.

President William McKinley was in a quandary. The Filipino people, having no experience with democracy, wouldn't be able to create a stable government on their own. Worse, he thought, they might fall under the domination of some conniving foreign power like Germany or Russia. Besides, there were economic incentives to stay - the sugar trade. So America stayed. And the millions of dollars spent to improve sanitation, infrastructure and education did little to salve wounded Filipinos' pride. They had long craved freedom and no amount of American humanitarian aid could satiate them. Filipino freedom fighters waged a vicious guerrilla uprising that lasted far longer and caused many more casualties on both sides than had resulted from the original war. Ten thousand miles away, Americans were aghast at the lack of appreciation for all the new schools and hospitals that were built.

The United States occupied the Philippines for nearly 50 years. That does not mean Uncle Sam will be running Iraq in 2053, but substitute Iraq for the Philippines, Syria and Iran for Germany and Russia, and oil for sugar, and then maybe this historical flashback should give us pause.

Of course Iraq isn't the Phillipines, but this is not necessarily good news. If there had been an Iran or Syria to blame the problem on, and they had been easily invadable in turn, it would have been harder to draw back from the brink of empire. Fear and anger may well lead us in precisely the wrong direction, down the road every empire since Rome has travelled.

No comments: