The original architects of the U.S. empire—long before its celebration by today’s neoconservatives—understood the importance of legitimacy in the neo-colonialist enterprise.

In order to achieve some degree of legitimacy, it was important to create a native stooge—what some call a “comprador”—heavily dependent upon American power to govern in the interests of the U.S. government.

In Iraq we have had the proverbial “Three Stooges,” as in the movies, often beating up on each other. The first of these was Saddam Hussein, who was essential in helping evict the British from control in Iraq and then in attacking Iran, but who became just a little too big for his britches. He has been followed with less success thus far by Ahmed Chalabi and now Iyad Allawi.

With all of the attention on Iraq and Afghanistan, with elections much in the news in those nations as well as in the United States, it is easy to lose sight of the U.S.’s long-term policies as recently projected by the Bush Administration and American military planners.

The Philippine Example

In the buildup for war against Iraq, the neocons used the Philippines a century ago as an example of successful counterinsurgency warfare and then of nation building. The primary advocate of this strategy was Max Boot, whose chapter on the Philippines in his book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power—based on a few American secondary sources and totally ignoring Filipino scholarship—made him an instant “expert” on such matters, vaulting him from the Wall Street Journal to the Council on Foreign Relations. However, as with the war in the Philippines, Iraq is not a “small war,” and Mr. Boot’s and others’ misjudging it as such demonstrates how pathetically small and ill-educated in history the neocon “elites” really are—as they have been wrong repeatedly and consistently.

If one ignores a number of compliant American Indian leaders in America’s expansionist march across the continent, the first U.S. stooge was probably Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines. His leadership of the subsequent Filipino insurgency has obscured this fact, just as Saddam’s later confrontation with the U.S. has submerged memory of the CIA’s helping him to power and of the U.S.’s providing him with chemical weapons in his war against Iran.

The Emerging Insurgency

When Admiral George Dewey arrived in Hong Kong in 1898, Aguinaldo and several of his compatriots were on their way to Europe taking the several hundred thousand dollars given them by the Spanish as part of the truce negotiated several years earlier. The Filipino exile now saw a chance to use American support in an effort to obtain power in the Islands.

Aguinaldo would readily have given the United States the Filipino coaling stations and other goodies it sought. Aware of both German and Japanese ambitions for the Islands, Aguinaldo sought “independence” in the form of U.S.-led multilateral protection of the Philippines against those two nations. What he could not have known, however, was that U.S. policymakers had already become disenchanted with “multilateralism” with respect to the almost decade-long Tripartite Pact with Great Britain and Germany over Samoa, and was now pursuing a “unilateral” policy in the Philippines, intending to annex the islands for itself.

In the tensions that emerged between the U.S. and Filipino forces, Aguinaldo soon lost his “stoogeship,” something that took a couple decades or so to occur with Saddam Hussein. When the first “Paul Bremer”-type U.S. proconsul arrived in the Islands, Jacob Gould Schurman, the President of Cornell University, it became apparent that there were less nationalistic, more conservative Filipinos who had collaborated with the Spaniards and who might be better suited to play the role of comprador/stooge. (It was Schurman, incidentally, who apparently first uttered that phrase, much repeated in the century since by liberals, that the U.S. is a “reluctant imperialist.”)

Aguinaldo then turned from stooge to leader of an insurgency against the U.S. occupation, much as today’s disillusioned Iraqis have done. The second American proconsul to the Philippines, William Howard Taft, soon arrived in the Islands as the insurgency raged. Taft was a political creature who can best be compared to John Negroponte, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who developed his skills by working with the U.S.’s stooges in Central America.

Let’s then look at the alleged U.S. “success” in the Philippines during the last century as a “model” for Iraq, especially in the two key areas of counterinsurgency tactics and nation building. Despite the title of Mr. Boot’s book, the Philippine fiasco, like Iraq today, can hardly be described as a “small war,” unless the number of Filipinos killed—more than 200,000—is simply ignored.

In light of recent talk about learning new tactics to deal with so-called “Fourth Generation Warfare,” the U.S. experience in the Philippines was pretty basic stuff:

  • As evident in the deal cut with the Spanish in 1896, Philippine nationalism at the time was not very fully developed, and the fissures within the nascent revolutionary coalition gave Taft the opportunity to develop relations with those conservatives one might describe as “Chalabi/Allawi” types.

  • The Filipinos lacked firepower and turned too late to guerrilla warfare of any kind of generational level. U.S. pressure, for example, was able to halt the delivery of 5,000 rifles promised by the Japanese.

  • The U.S. used basically the same tactics developed for use against the American Indians on the Great Plains and that the British used on the Boers in South Africa—and the very same reservation/reconcentrados used earlier by the Spanish in the Philippines to kill civilian Filipinos on a massive scale.

  • Against such a rudimentary revolutionary force, the Filipino scouts—much like U.S. Indian scouts earlier, and similar to what U.S. forces are now trying to constitute in Iraq—were able to capture Aguinaldo. (It was apparently a Kurdish special-forces unit that actually caught Saddam.)

And so, given the less-than-developed nature of the revolution in the Philippines, the capture of the leadership broke the back of the insurgency, although sporadic outbreaks continued for years. Aguinaldo’s signed oath-of-allegiance to the United States—other Filipino revolutionaries refused to sign—was a key.

When Taft was President, U.S. Captain John R. M. Taylor completed a five-volume History of the Philippine Insurrection. Taft, not wanting to embarrass the Filipino stooges who had given the Americans legitimacy, blocked its publication. Until his death in the 1930s, Taylor sought to get his study published in case the U.S. Army ever again found itself engaged in another guerrilla war. (The galleys remain in the National Archives today, although a limited edition was published in the Philippines some years ago.*) The irony, of course, is that Taft’s repression of the work deprived the U.S. Army of the knowledge that might have helped it learn from its experience in this first real confrontation with even a rudimentary revolution using guerrilla warfare. To date, the clear lessons of the Filipino insurgency are yet to have been learned in U.S. defense circles, and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq are the result.

Nation Building in the Philippines

The notion that the United States has some special expertise in nation building, some unique gift and exceptional ability to bestow the “blessings of democracy” on others, stems in no small part from the mythology of the U.S. war in the Philippines.

The military officers in the emerging U.S. imperial bureaucracy, the Bureau of Insular Affairs (B.I.A.), had little difficulty in working with the Filipino elite that had worked earlier with the Spanish. There was nothing very revolutionary in America’s nation building—neither market economics, land reform nor social democracy. When Taft became agitated over some of the more nationalistic statements of some of the conservatives, the B.I.A. explained to him that this was necessary to ensure their legitimacy in the face of some of the emerging, more nationalist politicians such as Manuel Quezon. But both Taft and the B.I.A. understood the limits placed on compradors within the U.S. empire.

What can now be said about the American “success” in nation building? With the turmoil in Iraq, the advocates of U.S. intervention there admit it may take decades to bring democracy to that nation, as if time were the crucial ingredient. It has now been 106 years since the United States intervened in the Philippine Islands—how does economic development and democracy there measure up to American promises?

The Philippines Today

The Asia Times has recently published a lengthy editorial and five-part series, “The Philippines: Disgraceful State,” by Pepe Escobar. The series completely disputes the neocons’ revisionist history, revealing the utter failure of the U.S. intervention in the Philippines over the last century. As in Iraq today, the results in the Philippines have been an enormous loss of life, extremely poor economic development (with a population expected to increase from 84 million today to 200 million by 2050), massive political corruption and human rights abuses, and a political system hardly embodying self-determination, let alone democracy. Perhaps it’s time to lay the myth to rest and replace it with the true historical record.

* Professor Marina was responsible for creating an index to the 96 reels of microfilm constituting the Philippine Insurgent Records in the National Archives, organized by U.S. Captain John R. M. Taylor and used in the preparation of his five-volume History of the Philippine Insurrection.