Friday, April 14, 2006

Why Are We There, When Can We Leave?

I'd like to share with you Mark Twain's thoughts on the Iraq war:

You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question..... There is the case of Iraq. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess.... We were to relieve them from Hussein's tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Iraqis, a government according to Iraqi ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now -- why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.

Okay, obviously Mark Twain didn't say that about America's occupation of Iraq. But he did say it--with the nations' names changed of course--about America's occupation of the Philippines, a nation that which came under US control in 1898 as part of the terms the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War (the Philippines had long been Spanish colonies). We promised the Filipinos that we were freeing them from oppressive monarchic and colonial rule, but they decided they'd rather free themselves. In 1899, the Filipinos declared independence. We fought their independence movement until 1913, and we won. The islands didn't leave American control until WW II (when Japan occupied them) and didn't get independence until 1946. (We got Puerto Rico and Guam in the same treaty and kept 'em.)

I'm fascinated that Twain's sense of the problems of the problem with America's occupation of the Philippines in 1900 applies so well to America's occupation of Iraq in 2006. And I don't think it's a fluke. I think it tells us something about the dangers of pursuing a foreign policy based on military force.

Twain wasn't alone in criticizing America's occupation of the Philippines. It made a lot of Americans uncomfortable--if not at first, then certainly after a few years. At the turn of the previous century just as at the turn of this one, Americans generally congratulated themselves on being different from other countries and, then as now, that sense of distinction generally came from their sense that they were profoundly democratic, profoundly committed to liberty, and therefore profoundly hostile to tyranny and imperialism. Fighting an independence movement didn't really seem to fit with that self-concept.

So what's the parallel to Iraq? Am I saying we have imperial ambitions there despite all the elections and provisional governments and training of local military? No. I don't think we do, anyway. For me, the more interesting parallel to Iraq lies in the reasons for the Spanish-American war and the way its humanitarian justifications fell by the wayside.

The Spanish-American War was an unjustified and largely pointless war generated by militarism and bad journalism. (Sound familiar?) The explosion in the boiler room of the USS Maine is now generally thought to be an accident rather than Spanish sabotage (and would have been seen that way at the time if anyone had taken a deep breath and allowed a serious investigation). So there was never any real justification in terms of US national interests (in Iraq: no WMDs, no al-Qaeda).

And whatever justification there was in terms of humanitarian decency (freeing the Filipinos from Spanish imperialism) soon turned ugly when Filipinos' independence demands turned out to be incompatible with American desire to project power abroad. As Twain points out, this plunged us into a war with the Filipinos that we hadn't really been seeking and did so for reasons that had nothing to do with democratic ideals.

And I'm afraid that could happen in Iraq or even that it is happening in Iraq. We've already been there longer than envisioned by the neocon architects of the war (many of whom are now agitating for military action against Iran), and we're close to finding ourselves in the same sort of quagmire there that Twain saw in the Philippines in 1900. Right now, I'm not convinced we're fighting nationalists in search of independence (rather than jihadis in search of Islamic empire), but I am afraid that if we stay there much longer most Iraqis will start seeing the jihadis' fight as their fight. And then we will be fighting an independence movement, and we might not be able to stop fighting. Not for decades, anyway.

Even more worrisomely, a closer parallel between Iraq and an island nation that fell under our control after the Spanish-American War is Cuba. We got Cuba in the same treaty that we got the Philippines. President McKinley was pleased to have Cuba under his control, and he declared that America would have a twenty-year trusteeship over it. Pres. Roosevelt was more sympathetic to Cuban desires for independence, so he granted independence in 1902. But that independence had a big catch. Not only did the conditions of independence require that Cuba lease of Guantanamo Bay in perpetuity, they also granted--explicitly in the Cuban constitution--the US the right to intervene in Cuba's domestic affairs when it saw fit.

In 1906, the US exercised that right when it wasn't satisfied that Cuba's fragile (and elitist) government would survive the death of Pres. Estrada Palmer. The US was directly and indirectly involved with appointing or deposing governments in Cuba until 1944.

The factional and racial violence that helped keep Cuba politically unstable over that period seems unnervingly analogous to the regional and ethnic tensions in today's Iraq. Of course, the new Iraqi constitution doesn't allow us the right to intervene at will in Iraqi affairs, but Iraqis' inability to establish a new government, the ongoing guerilla violence, and our having a hundred and fifty thousand troops on the ground makes that constitution more a piece of paper than a compelling reality.

And I'm afraid that the temptation to intervene militarily in Iraqi politics will be enormously strong for this and future Presidents. We now know that Bush entered this war excited not so much by supposed WMDs as by the neocon aspiration of "regional transformation," of deposing Saddam and putting a democratic, pro-US government in his place. A lot of those people are still in various important positions in the US government and a lot of them will be reluctant to see the US leave Iraq before a strong, pro-US government is in place. The problem is, it seems less likely every day that left to its own devices Iraq will have either a strong government or a pro-US government any time soon, much less have both.

And you don't have to be a neocon to be tempted to stay in Iraq until we somehow "get it right." We've lost thousands of soldiers, killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, spend hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been spend on education, or health care, or a night on the town. People want those lives and that money to mean something. And Iraq is hugely important--as a source of oil, as a check on Iran, as a potential ally. If things go badly there, all that could go down the drain.

It took only a few years for thoughtful people to realize that they couldn't understand why we were in the Philippines or Cuba, but it took the US forty-eight years to get out of the Philippines and forty-six years to get out of Cuba. We've been in Iraq three. When will we get out? When can we get out? And, at least as important, how can we stop getting into these situations?


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