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America's First Empire Proved Costly, Frustrating
Published on Tuesday, August 5, 2003 by the St Paul Pioneer Press
America's First Empire Proved Costly, Frustrating
A Century-Old Conflict Has Lessons For The Present Situation In Iraq
by Larry Weaver

It was a short, glorious war fought against an enemy that easily played its role as the personification of evil. Its military melted away quickly after offering poorly organized resistance.

Outclassed, outplanned, outsupplied and outfought, the Spanish crown surrendered an empire to the United States in 1898 much as Saddam left us with a broken nation state in 2003.

The costs of running the new empire did not figure very highly in the debate leading to the Spanish-American War. The sinking of the battleship Maine and Spain's deplorable behavior in Cuba occupied the public discourse the same way Saddam's record of evil dominated our recent discussion.

The debate took place after the war. Could a Protestant, democratic, capitalist, Caucasian, English-speaking nation run an empire of dark-skinned, Catholic, Spanish-speaking, formerly enslaved subjects? Could a democracy run an empire, even if we thought it was only going to be for a short time?

The question we face now is very similar. Can today's America, which still adheres to the same values we espoused a century ago, successfully answer the challenge of governing a Middle Eastern people who are accustomed to depending on the government for life's necessities? Forcing an answer to that question, as in 1898, is the fact that we are involved in a war with the very people we liberated.

Ferdinand Aguinaldo led the Philippine resistance to Spanish occupation. He greatly aided the Americans in their campaign to defeat the Spanish. Aguinaldo cooperated with the understanding that after the war the Americans would leave and the Philippines would become independent.

Our decision to stay led directly to a guerrilla war that tied down a large part of the Army for three years. Americans could not understand why we were not welcomed with open arms as liberating heroes. After all, we had liberated them from the cruelty of Spain and set free the inmates of concentration camps and prisons.

The population did not express great devotion to Aguinaldo and yet they fought for him against us. The price of occupation climbed. The cost of administering and running the territory, combined with the bleeding of American troops trying to pacify the population, increased the fury of the debate.

What followed is a pattern we have seen before: pacification campaigns, area searches, checkpoints, reprisals, assassinations and a level of violence that would have been impossible to accept today with a modern instantaneous media.

The solution came in the form of the defeat and capture of Aguinaldo and the assumption that the revolt would end with the elimination of the leadership. This assumption proved mixed and the revolt continued for another decade (well past President Theodore Roosevelt's declaration that the war was over on July 4, 1902).


The guerrilla war gradually died. The resentment did not. For almost a century the United States kept the Philippines in colonial status or kept a large military presence there at a cost that cannot be properly estimated. In spite of our best intentions, the Philippine people held the United States responsible for a series of corrupt leaders whom we had at least tacitly installed.

This short tale of a century-old conflict has interesting lessons for the present. The second war with Iraq was indeed short and relatively cheap in terms of blood and money. However, we have run into a similar post-war conflict, with Saddam cast as Aguinaldo and Bush playing the role of a 21st-century Teddy Roosevelt.

The population of Iraq has met us with a little joy, a lot of resentment and rising violence. While the short-term problem may be reduced by the capture or killing of Saddam, the larger question that faced our ancestors is still to be answered: Can a republic founded on the precepts of democracy, fed by the power of regulated capitalism, and enjoying the legacy of centuries of Western European culture, run an empire? Have we seriously debated the point in public and made a conscious decision? Or, like our ancestors a century ago, have we merely stumbled into the situation with the best of intentions?

Now is the time for debate and a clear decision. Does our position as the world's leading power mean that we are obligated to enforce a Pax Americana? If it does then we must be willing to face the price in blood and treasure. If we fail to make a clear decision, then the generation that bore the Vietnam War will leave a far grimmer legacy to generations that follow.

Weaver, an analyst and consultant for Synergy Inc. in Washington, holds a doctorate in the history of American foreign relations from Indiana University.

© Copyright 1996-2003 Knight Ridder


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