the real comparison between iraq and the philippines

Iraq MapAndrew Sullivan recently linked to a Ross Douthat essay that favorably compared our interventions in Iraq and the Philippines. If you don’t remember your history, the US went to war against the Spanish in 1898 and gained control of various Spanish colonies such as Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines. Douthat made the comparison because the Philippines is now a society that benefited from being allied with America, despite some initial problems.

If you know about this conflict in detail, there are very strong comparisons and you get a way different picture:

1. A Culture of Interventionism: For years before the Spanish American War and the Gulf Wars, people were itching for a fight. The Monroe Doctrine asserted that America could interfere in the Americas. The Carter Doctrine said we could interfere in the Persian Gulf.  In the first case, war mongers wanted to stick it to the Spanish in Cuba. In the later case, neo-cons wanted to stick it to the Baathists in Iraq.

2. Flimsy Pretext for War: In both cases, the killing of Americans motivated the war. But in each instance, the actual case for war was weak. In the Spanish-American war, the incident was the destruction of an American vessel, the Maine. Now, many historians will admit that no one really knows who blew it up and it might have blown up by accident. There are rival theories. In the Iraq War, the war was motivated by weak, probably non-existent, links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. And of course, the weapons of mass destruction never materialized.

Philippine Map3. The Media Gets in a Frenzy: In the Spanish American war, the Spanish are depicted as a despotic enemy. In the second Gulf War, the bogey man is weapons of mass desctruction, repeated thousands of times.

4. Quick Victory over the Enemy State: Confronted with the US Navy, the Spanish are devastated in 3 1/2 months. In 2003, the Baathist state barely lasts a month against the US Army and the Marines.

5. People Welcome the Americans, But Later Get Upset: In both cases, the oppressed peoples actually did welcome Americans. To be honest, Americans are way nicer than most other folks because we are a great country. However, Americans weren’t in a rush to grant autonomy to either the Philippines or Iraq. Add into the mix the heavy handed tactics in both countries and the occasional atrocity and you get some very angry people.

6. Insurgency Breaks out and 5,000 American troops die: Current casualty toll in Iraq – about 4,600 coalition troops. The Philippine-American War? About 4,200 hundred troops. Just replace “harsh desert war” with “harsh jungle ambushes.” It was a bit slower in the Philippines because you have to slog through a lot of jungle.

7. Racial Undertones and Pushing Christianity: In both cases, Muslims were a key issue. In modern times, we’re concerned about Islamic states. In the Philippines, there were many battles and disputes with south Muslim Philippine groups. Much of the population is Catholic, but the south was hard core Muslim. There was the “Moro Rebellion,” which is all about Muslim resistance to Americans and everything else from the West.

8. Eventually Things Chill Out Because No One Wants to Fight Forever: After about ten years, the guerrilla war ends. People tire out. People accept America as the new colonizer, though they are certainly better than the Spanish. Will this happen in Iraq? We don’t know.

So, yes, Douthat is right. There is a strong analogy and this is the lesson from the Philippines: There is always a group of people itching for a fight with a Bad Guy. Sooner or later, they’ll get it because we’ll get panicked over a serious, though circumscribed, problem. The public will buy whatever lame link you can provide to the Bad Guy, partially because the Bad Guy is actually evil. Since we have better technology and military organization, we’ll clean the floor with the Bad Guy government. The people we conquer will love us for about a year until they realize that we want to be their mom and dad. Sure, they’ll be angry for a while, but if we just burn through a few thousand troops and a hundred thousand civilian casualties, we’ll grind those folks into the ground and the next generation will grudgingly accept us. That’s the implied foreign policy framework. I just need an explanation of what makes that a “conservative” policy.

Written by fabiorojas

July 30, 2009 at 4:00 am

6 Responses

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  1. Very interesting, but, by the way: “our interventions”, “we conquer”, etc., these sorts of deictics are also fine ingredients of the kind of sociological processes you are talking about. The morally integrated “we” is key to the discourse of intervention (North-American, in particular).




    July 30, 2009 at 8:41 am

  2. Sorry, who is the “other colonizer” we’re referring to in the case of Iraq when we make the comparison of the Americans being preferable to to the Spanish colonizers in the Philippines? The Baathists may have been an “evil” party state, but they certainly were not a “foreign imperialist power” — which is the way the Iraqi people eventually came to see (and some already did see) the Americans. In any case, there have been many other “evil” (party) states the US had been able (or willing) to live with, but would never contemplate attacking (either due to their strategic status in a given region, or because the US could not overpower them in a conflict, or because the consequences would be catastrophic, that is when the US diplomats had the upper hand over the Department of Defense). The suggestiveness of Douthat’s analysis is more powerful than the typology — in my view, whatever the framing, the ambitions of (either a small or a very large group of) people itching for a fight with a Bad Guy were what we could call imperialist. Sure, there happen to be similarities in circumstances and contexts. But I also see too many inconsistencies in the comparison of these two cases alone to try to make a typology, let alone when comparing other cases in which the US could be deemed a “foreign imperialist power”. So, the question raised by Douthat’s suggestive analysis is: how does a group of people come to itch for a fight with a Bad Guy?

    This, of course, doesn’t answer your question, Fabio, of what makes it particularly “conservative”. The answer could be that the Conservatives do the framing of it in a way that makes things seem to some people as particularly conservative? Although, I also know that this neat partitioning of blame wouldn’t wash with many people outside the US, who would be more inclined to see things in terms of culture.


    Gregory Schwartz

    July 30, 2009 at 9:54 am

  3. I’m not so sure things ended up very well for the Philippines — decades of corrupt dictatorship, continuing instability and economic stagnation, simmering separatist conflict in the south (and hardening of Muslim identities). Unfortunately, I think Iraq would be lucky to have even that kind of future. It is far more religiously and ethnically divided than the Philippines.



    July 30, 2009 at 5:34 pm

  4. A few comments:

    Bedhaya: Love you, dude, but your point is wrong. While there is a dominant religion (most phils are Catholic), there are literally dozens of ethnic groups, each with hardened identities. In Iraq, I think the main groups are Shia & SUnni muslims, Kurds and a few others. The Philippines has at least 18 language cultural groups, and this often spills out into bitter politics.

    George: Point well taken. Iraq was not a colonial state and the US, unlike in 1898, was not trying to get more colonies. But I don’t thing that disqualifies the similarities in both cases. The saber rattle/weak opponent/long occupation dynamic.

    As far as your question, when do people itch. I take a skeptical view – there is always someone ready to fight, even if it’s not the majority. And the point of my post was that if you wait enough, the hot heads will find an opportunity to push their view. If you believe that, then the right policy is to raise our standard for intervention before something bad happens.



    July 30, 2009 at 5:45 pm

  5. Fabio, point taken, I don’t know enough about either the Philippines or Iraq to know which one has worse ethnic divisions, and certainly the Philippines is up there (though not nearly as much as other Asian countries like India and Indonesia). Friction between different ethnicities and religions don’t necessarily mean a country is doomed. My point was more that Iraq seems to have an unusually high level of hatred between groups at the moment, which does not bode well for the future.



    July 30, 2009 at 9:17 pm

  6. […] the real comparison between iraq and the philippines […]


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