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Imperial Wars, Then & Now

August  13  2003

Having found neither weapons of mass destruction nor a link to 9-11, the White House has retreated into its fallback position. It now defends Operation Iraqi Freedom as a necessary war to rid the Middle East of a brutal dictatorship and replace it with a democracy.

That is, this was a war of democratic imperialism, as some of us said all along. The neocons exploited America's rage after 9-11 and steered the president into invading Iraq, in order to reshape its political system and redirect its foreign policy. Imperialism, pure and simple.

Ahmed Chalabi was the puppet preselected to run the colony.

Now, we are mired in a guerrilla war, with daily dead and wounded, costing $1 billion a week, with no exit strategy and no end in sight.

Yet, it is not the first time a U.S. president, elected on an anti-interventionist platform, was steered into an imperial war, after absorbing a stunning, shocking blow to the nation.

On Feb. 15, 1898, the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, killing 268 sailors. This perceived Spanish atrocity, almost surely an accident, was seized upon by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt to bully President McKinley into calling for a war with Spain for which they had long planned.

In "First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power," ex-ambassador Warren Zimmerman tells the compelling story of how America first became an empire.

Anticipating war, T.R., on the navy secretary's day off, wired Commodore Dewey, commander of the Pacific squadron, to prepare to attack the Spanish fleet. As soon as war was declared, Dewey sailed for Manila Bay, caught the Spanish ships in the harbor and sank or burned all seven, losing but a single man.

The U.S. North Atlantic Squadron did the same to the Spanish fleet sent to protect Cuba. The Spanish warships were bottled up in Santiago harbor by U.S. battleships with superior firepower. In a heroic but doomed breakout on July 3, 1898, every Spanish ship was scuttled or sunk. Madrid surrendered.

After our "splendid little war," a ferocious debate erupted. It was between T.R.-Lodge imperialists who believed that for America to be secure in a world of empires, she must become an empire and annex the Philippines and anti-imperialists, or "goo-goos," who wanted to give the Filipinos their independence.

Arguments for and against annexation were both strategic and racist. Said industrialist Andrew Carnegie, "As long as we remain free from distant possessions, we are impregnable against serious attack."

Added progressive Carl Schurz, "Show me a single instance of the successful establishment and peaceable maintenance for a respectable period of republican institutions, based upon popular self-government, under a tropical sun."

McKinley had promised Schurz, "You may be sure there will be no jingo nonsense in my administration." But he was won over by the imperialists. He ordered the Army to occupy Manila and crush Filipino rebels, who were stunned to discover their liberators had decided to replace their former colonial masters.

For three years, U.S. soldiers and Marines fought, with 4,000 dying in combat, several times as many as had been lost in Cuba. Filipino combat losses were 20,000 with 200,000 civilian dead, many of disease. Yet, a recent New York Times Almanac does not even list the Filipino insurrection as a major U.S. conflict.

Was it worth it annexing the Philippines?

In the war to secure the islands, atrocities were committed on both sides, and as a result of that war, we became ensnared in the great power politics of Asia, out of which came Pearl Harbor, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. By annexing the islands, writes Zimmermann, America "took on a security commitment in Asia that it found difficult to defend. In the Philippine case, the founders of American imperialism may have made a costly mistake."

One year after the war to avenge the sinking of the Maine in Havana, we were in an imperial war 10,000 miles away. Now, two years after Sept. 11, we are fighting a guerrilla war in a nation 6,000 miles away, that had nothing to do with 9-11.

President Bush was misled about what to expect when Baghdad fell. And those who misled him now reassure him that our occupation is going well and we are mopping up the resistance.

Perhaps. But, like William McKinley, George Bush may prove to be a well-intentioned president who embroiled us in decades of wars in a part of the world that was never vital to America.

2003 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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