Open University

How Right Were You, And Why?


by Eric Rauchway
Jane Galt says you can't just get the ball in the pocket, you have to call your shot. Which is to say:

I was wrong to impute excessive competence to the government.... This has not convinced me of the brilliance of the doves, because precisely none of the ones that I argued with predicted that things would go wrong in the way they did. If you get the right result, with the wrong mechanism, do you get credit for being right, or being lucky? In some way, they got it just as wrong as I did: nothing that they predicted came to pass.

I don't know which anti-war voice Ms. Galt hears in her memory, but two I was reading on the eve of war do not match this story. Daniel Davies, in particular, owns this issue because before the war he challenged anyone to come up with an important administration initiative that "wasn't in some important way completely f**ked up during the execution," (and he remembers it, among other successful predictions). The apostropher did pretty well, too, asking,

how long will the American public tolerate our military being caught in the middle of a brutal civil war with multiple fronts and several sides? You and I both know the answer: not long at all.

So there we have two major, apparently correct insights--(1) however good the plan, the Bush administration showed no habit of efficient execution, and (2) the likelihood of devolution into a many-sided civil war with our troops stuck in the middle. Both excellent reasons not to wage that particular war at that particular time. (See also.)

I wish I had been as smart. Here someone has kindly preserved a record of one thing I said in the Financial Times, just before the war started. Picking through some key points:

Washington's line echoes the failed ambitions of past US leaders to invent a benevolent imperialism. Mr Bush's reputed role model, William McKinley, sought to distinguish the US from the colonising nations of Europe by bringing democracy to the Philippines. Instead he brought terror and mayhem to US soldiers and Filipinos alike.

There follows a cramped history of the U.S.-Philippine War (on the subject of which you might like this very smart book by David Silbey).1

Specifically, I noted the following result of America's liberating the Philippines from Spain:

trouble plagued the new colony from the start. As Senator Henry Cabot Lodge mildly noted: "Those people whom we liberated down there have turned against us." An army of 75,000 Filipinos began to fight a guerrilla war against their benevolent occupiers. The Americans had the advantage of superior firepower; the rebels enjoyed the privilege of camouflage that accrues to an occupied people. The well-armed Americans hunkered in groups while stealthy guerrillas sowed terror among the coloniser troops--who then retaliated against the populace at large. This pattern culminated in an ambush on the American garrison at Balangiga--the worst massacre of US troops since Custer. In reply, US forces laid waste to the surrounding country.

In hindsight, this prediction-by-historical-analogy looks too optimistic. My analogy permitted me to suggest that we would not be treated as liberators by a sufficient proportion of the populace, but it did not permit me to predict the development of civil war, which has proved essential to the story.

But, following Tim Burke, I do think it's worth reconsidering the causality underlying my use of historical analogy, and why I preferred my choice of historical parallel to the administration's.

Mr Bush now cites the democratic postwar reconstruction of Japan and Germany as precedents. But in 1945 the US ranked first among equals as peacemakers, leading a co-operative international project to rebuild shattered opponents. For the old Axis powers, Americans wrote new constitutions reflecting international aspirations, including measures more progressive than US customs. The present effort to keep other nations at arm's length, promising to bring to Iraq a uniquely US experience of war and its aftermath, means there is something old in store for the new axis of enemies.

I thought that had the Bush administration persuaded more and stronger allies to take part in its effort, it might have succeeded as it did in Germany and Japan, but that acting essentially on its own, it could not. And I thought this because the U.S. has never shown the ability to act like a proper empire on its own. We do not have a strong state, and we like it that way. We do not want, really, to rule foreign peoples. As Niall Ferguson says, "Americans don't really want to go to hot, poor countries and get shot at that much; whereas the British, particularly the Scots, seem to love that."

America achieved its greatest international success not by acting imperially, but by backing institutions (Bretton Woods, the Nuremberg Tribunal, the UN) that took the weight of imperial authority off the U.S. or any single empire and placed it on the shared commitments of the great powers to a rule of law. (On which subject you might like this fine book by Elizabeth Borgwardt.)

I still think reaching a new, broader multilateral consensus about Iraq, a consensus based on that postwar tradition, would have been preferable to waging war that spring. Such a consensus would almost certainly have led to war much later, if at all, and would have pitted some larger share of the international community, rather than (effectively) just the U.S. and U.K., against the enemies of order in Iraq.

So, did I oppose the war? Not strongly enough. Did my use of historical analogy correctly predict the outcome? Partially, but it seems now that I didn't see the future in nearly so dark a shade as it deserved. It's possible that in another three years, I'll look back on this post and see how wrong it is.

For what it's worth, I should add that like Desmond King, I see American imperial ineptitude as the obverse of important virtues. King wrote in the fall of 2003,

The American polity is a democracy and this feature constrains its international activities.... American political culture is anti-colonial and anti-imperial: not surprisingly given the country's political origins.

I prefer these typically American virtues, which are incompatible with empire, to imperial glory. They've only caused us real problems when, for good or bad reasons, we've decided to get into the official empire business, remembering only belatedly how poorly suited we are to that racket. Indeed, I wrote a book about this.

1. In the article I mention McKinley's famous going-down-to-pray moment, and Lewis Gould took me to task for this because the provenance of this particular speech is disputed. I later pointed out that, as H. Wayne Morgan says, "few of the President's statements more exactly describe his thought processes."

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