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Theodore Roosevelt is much on our minds in Newport, R.I., with the centennial of the Great White Fleet’s epic world cruise fast approaching. (The fleet departed Hampton Roads in December 1907.) But the Roosevelt era can also inform the strident debate over Iraq. In recent weeks, President Bush proclaimed that abandoning Iraq would set in motion a bloodletting comparable to the one following the Vietnam War.
Similarly, Army Gen. David Petraeus cautioned Congress against an abrupt pullout.
In all likelihood, TR would echo these warnings.
Iraq is no Vietnam. No counterpart to the North Vietnamese Army backs up the Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists with conventional firepower.
The enemies of the new Iraq have no national leader of Ho Chi Minh’s stature, and they offer no political program to unite Iraqis. Indeed, many Sunni tribesmen have turned their guns on al Qaeda, their former ally. But the Iraq war does bear substantial resemblance to an older American war, and that’s where TR has his say.
Now almost forgotten, the Philippine War of 1899-1902 represented the United States’ first foray into imperialism. After Adm. George Dewey’s squadron crushed the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in 1898, the archipelago fell into American hands almost by default. President William McKinley judged Filipino nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo unfit to rule the archipelago, and he realized that rising imperial powers such as Germany and Japan coveted all or part of it — to the detriment of U.S. diplomatic and commercial interests in the Far East.
Rather than see Germany or Japan establish naval bases in the Philippines, McKinley declared that the United States had no choice but to annex and rule the archipelago until its inhabitants were ready to rule themselves. In the meantime, America established naval stations of its own, erecting a platform to project power throughout East Asia.
In the archipelago, as in Iraq, a U.S. expeditionary force overcame a conventional army, only to see the remnants of that army resort to unconventional warfare. Faced with an opponent that refused to admit defeat, the U.S. Army and Marines waged a protracted counterinsurgent campaign, prevailing over Aguinaldo’s ragtag insurgency only after years of at-times horrific fighting. The United States instituted a Philippine Assembly in 1907 — another largely forgotten centennial that occurs this year — but emancipated the island nation only in 1946.
The Philippine enterprise aroused vehement opposition at home. Like the Bush administration today, the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations confronted a vocal anti-war movement.
While Mark Twain, president of the Anti-Imperialist League, confessed that he admired “Theodore the man,” he pronounced “Theodore, as statesman and politician … insane and irresponsible.” Carl Schurz, vice president of the league and a one-time Roosevelt confidant, railed against “criminal aggression” in the islands. William Jennings Bryan ran for the presidency on an anti-imperial platform in 1900, before Aguinaldo was captured, deflating the anti-imperialists’ cause.
Like today’s anti-war movement, the anti-imperialists demanded that President Roosevelt — an anarchist’s bullet having felled McKinley in 1901 — set a deadline for bringing U.S. troops home. TR refused, leveling a variety of objections. For one thing, he insisted that fixing a date for withdrawal would embolden the insurgents while disheartening America’s Filipino allies. This would harm both Filipinos and the U.S. national interest.
Roosevelt quoted Edmund Burke, his favorite philosopher, noting that it took time for a populace emerging from centuries of tyranny to relearn the habits of self-rule. Filipinos needed more than security forces and political institutions if they were to govern themselves. They needed to learn to settle disputes through nonviolent political debate, not the gun. In his typical understated manner, TR lambasted “the jack fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it may be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting.”
Nation building seldom conforms to schedules, especially when imposed by outsiders.
With regard to the national interest, McKinley had deemed it “bad business and discreditable” for the United States to relinquish the islands prematurely. This would deny the U.S. Navy an invaluable base off China’s coast while abandoning Filipinos to the likes of Japan or Germany. American rule would be mild by comparison.
And then there was the matter of America’s reputation for fortitude.
Roosevelt taunted Bryan during the 1900 election campaign, observing that to abandon the newly annexed Philippines “would be to surrender American territory.” TR dared Bryan to admit he would abandon this foreign commitment — and be branded an ostrich and a coward.
Judging from the Philippine War, then, TR might tender the following advice. One, having suffered under tyrannical rule for decades, Iraqis need to not only restore order but also to relearn the art of self-government. A liberal political culture isn’t built on the clock.
And two, a premature pullout — despite the short-term political relief it promises — would have long-term repercussions for the U.S. national interest, endangering America’s reputation for steadfastness.
(James R. Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College, in Newport. The views voiced here are his.)