Iraq Vietnam And Philippines Guest

Iraq, Vietnam and the Philippines: Guest Editorial

Harold Cole of the UCLA Economics Department (no relation) has kindly permitted me to share a message of his here as a guest editorial.

Eerie parallelism

The anniversary of September 11 seems to be generating a bit of a reflection on where we are and how are we doing vis-à-vis the war on terrorism. The recent article in the Atlantic and [Saturday’s posting at Informed Comment] all seem to be coming to the similar conclusions: (i) while initially successful in Afghanistan, we had a real opportunity for a long run success there and we blew by not committing enough men and resources to it, and (ii) the Iraq war was a major strategic disaster brought about by our fundamental misunderstanding of the people we dealing with.

It’s striking how similar this is to our assessment of how we went wrong in Vietnam. I started rereading my old copy of Stanley Karnow’s book on Vietnam. The initial discussion of the mindset and assumptions that we had going into Vietnam are eerily similar to what Fallows describes in his interviews with Wolfowitz. People not familiar with a region or a culture never the less conclude that it is open to our moving in and radically changing its organization and cultural/political orientation. They are then surprised to find out that that is not the case when the costs in terms of bodies and treasure start piling up:


“The essential reality of the struggle was that the Communists, imbued with an almost fanatical sense of dedication to a reunified Vietnam under their control, saw the war against the United States and its South Vietnamese ally as the continuation of two thousand years of resistance to Chinese and later French rule… American strategists misgauged the North Vietnamese and Vietcong by applying their own values to them.” (p. 17-18)

Juan Cole argues that the Bin Laden and his followers see themselves as taking part in a thousand year war against Western Crusaders who are seeking to divide and conquer the Muslim world, and that their goal is reunite the Muslims and to try and create the single large Muslim/Islamic super state that previously existed under the caliphate system. To do this he notes that they need to overthrow the current leadership in a number of Muslim countries – particularly secular leadership like the Baathists in Iraq and Syria – and unite the Muslim world against the West. Viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear why the he reaches the conclusion that so far, the war in Iraq has been a success for Bin Laden and a failure for the U.S.

When you compare Cole’s statements with Karnow’s statements on Vietnam, it really highlights the repetitive nature of the policy failure. In the when it rains it pours vein: I was listening to a NPR interview of John Judis who has a new book on even earlier attempts at American empire building and what we learned and then forgot from them. One particularly striking part of his comments is the passage about the current Bush Administration:


“At noon, October 18, 2003, President George W. Bush landed in Manila as part of a six-nation Asian tour. … In his speech, Bush took credit for America transforming the Philippines into “the first democratic nation in Asia.” … As many Philippine commentators remarked afterward, Bush’s rendition of Philippine-American history bore very little relation to fact. True, the United States Navy under Admiral George Dewey had ousted Spain from the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898. But instead of creating a Philippine democracy, President William McKinley annexed the country and installed a colonial administrator. The United States then fought a brutal war against the same Philippine independence movement it had encouraged to fight Spain. The war dragged on for fourteen years. Before it was over, about 120,000 American troops were deployed and more than 4,000 died; more than 200,000 Filipino civilians and soldiers were killed. And the resentment against American policy was still evident a century later during George W. Bush’s visit.

Politicians often rewrite history to their own purposes, but, as Bush’s analogy to Iraq suggested, there was more than passing significance to his revision of the history of the Spanish-American War. It reflected not just a distorted picture of a critical episode in American foreign policy but a seeming ignorance of the important lessons that Americans drew from this brief and unhappy experiment in creating an overseas empire. If Bush had applied these lessons to the American plans for invading Iraq and transforming the Middle East, he might have proceeded far more cautiously. But as his rendition of history showed, he was either unaware of them or had chosen to ignore them.”

Judis goes on to talk about how our policy during the Spanish American War represented a fundamental shift away from our prior policy of anti-Imperialism, and towards a pro-Imperialism policy. He states that many of the supports of the policy, including Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, came to see a policy that they had initially supported as a huge mistake. This too has a striking parallel with our radical policy shift towards preemptive war based on our high quality intelligence information and the policy becoming discredited with its first major implementation in the Iraq war.

Harold L. Cole

Professor of Economics

U.C.L.A.