Iraq Isn’t Vietnam — Let’s Hope It’s Like the Philippines

Posted November 14, 2003 at 4:32pm

While President Bush’s critics persistently liken Iraq to Vietnam, it’s possible that Iraq could resemble the Philippines, where the United States waged a successful anti-guerrilla war from 1899 to 1902. [IMGCAP(1)]

Parallels between Iraq and the Philippines are drawn by American Enterprise Institute military expert Thomas Donnelly, who argues that counter-insurgency struggles “most assuredly can be won.”

Like the latest war in Iraq, the Spanish-American War was waged by a first-term Republican president, William McKinley, allegedly using doctored intelligence and at the instigation of jingoistic ideologues.

It was won swiftly, too, with minimal casualties (379 U.S. troops lost in the Philippines) and with the president declaring that the United States was the “liberator” of the Philippine people.

Unfortunately, as Donnelly wrote in an article on AEI’s Web site, U.S. occupying forces soon were attacked by nationalist guerrillas who killed 4,200 Americans before the United States won in 1902.

Donnelly asserts that in Iraq, the United States has the advantage of fighting not against nationalists who could legitimately argue that they were fighting against imperialists, but against Baathists who offer Iraq only a return to tyranny.

However, to win in Iraq, Donnelly argues, the Bush administration needs to follow the example set by McKinley: provide enough troops and allow local commanders enough autonomy to tailor their tactics to local circumstances.

Another Washington foreign policy scholar, Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center, agrees that the United States can win in Iraq, but he draws parallels to the costly British victory in the Boer War in South Africa that occurred simultaneously with the Philippine insurgency.

“Britain was at the height of its imperial power and contemptuous of everyone else,” Kemp told me. “The whole world cheered every time the Boers [Dutch-speaking colonialists] won a victory and humiliated the British. At the end of it, Britain won, but it had to abandon its splendid isolation.”

The difference is, of course, that the United States is not fighting to control Iraq or even to stay there. Moreover, while much of the world may resent U.S. power, it has to quake at the prospect of a victory by followers of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

So, the question is, how to win? In an interview, Donnelly said the United States needs more troops in Iraq than it presently has there — “but they have to be the right kind of troops. They need to be dismounted, out of their tanks, walking around and getting to know the locals.”

In the article he wrote with AEI researcher Vance Serchuk, Donnelly argued that “the first lesson of counterinsurgency … is to encourage innovative, adaptive military leadership at the local level, rather than trying to micromanage the conflict from afar.”

In the Philippines, the insurgency was concentrated in southwest Luzon, much as it is concentrated in the Sunni heartland of Iraq around Baghdad.

“Pacifying” an area, he told me, involves “bringing in overwhelming force so that the price of striking by the enemy is very high, then bringing in the Iraqis to help police the area and quickly slamming in civilian and economic reconstruction to make things better for the population.

“Once you’ve thrown a wet blanket onto the fire in one place, you go on to the next,” he said. In the Philippines, the U.S. cause was aided by the emergence of a nationwide political movement, the Federalist Party, that favored modernization along American lines.

In Iraq, no pro-U.S. party has emerged. The Bush administration hopes to build support by giving more power to the Iraqi Governing Council.

Former Clinton administration diplomat Marc Ginsberg, just back from Iraq, says a key to winning political support is simply “buying it” with more money.

Local military commanders until recently were spending funds from the $800 million in cash that Hussein had hoarded, but that money is gone and has not yet been replaced by flows from the $87 billion appropriation just passed by Congress.

According to Donnelly, “the real strategic center of gravity,” both in the Philippines and Iraq, was and is “U.S. public opinion.”

Even though 4,200 Americans were killed in the Philippines and insurgents stepped up their attacks in 1900 in hopes of affecting the outcome of the U.S. elections, “the American public rallied around the flag and returned McKinley to the White House with the largest electoral majority in nearly thirty years.”

Citing other experts, Donnelly contends that Americans are fundamentally more “defeat-phobic” than “casualty-phobic” — more worried about losing a war than losing soldiers to win a war.

“It is critical for the Bush administration to continue to articulate the importance of the U.S. mission in Iraq and explain the nature of the progress we are making there,” he wrote.

In the process, the administration needs to educate the public that Vietnam is not the only guerrilla war America has ever fought and that we can win this one because we’ve done it before.