Let's Hope We Do Better in Iraq than We Did in Cuba





Mr. DiFonzo is a professor of law at Hofstra University.

While the current Iraq crisis is quite appropriately focused on the rationale for a proposed American invasion, much less heed has been paid to the costs and consequences of a post-war American occupation. We have, however, traveled this road before, and the historical analogy is worth considering.

Prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898, American sentiments were inflamed by the tyrannical behavior of the Spanish overlords of Cuba and the Phillippines. One U.S. Senator declared that the Cuban population was "struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst management of which I ever had knowledge." American pre-war intentions were largely centered on the liberation of both Cuba and the Phillippines. Even though Spain had unquestioned legal authority over the two lands, the U.S. decided to ignore that barrier. As historian Warren Zimmerman recently noted, the American invasion of Spain's territories constituted the first acknowledgment that "a country's sovereignty cannot protect it from outside intervention on human rights grounds."

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Once the conquest of the Spanish forces in Cuba and the Phillippines succeeded, however, American involvement in those islands followed the grim logic of replacing one brutal colonial power with another. In Cuba, the rebels whose cause we had ostensibly vindicated were shunted aside in a power grab by American interests. Although Cuba was never formally declared an American colony, Congressional legislation ensured the right of the U.S. government to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever and for whatever reason it chose. American mastery of the island nation was masked by the high-flown phrases which dictators often deploy for constitutional cover. The Platt Amendment, passed in 1901, stated that American intervention was aimed only at the "preservation of Cuban independence, [and] the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty." In fact, the power to direct the affairs of Cuba was liberally exercised by subsequent American administrations.

The American behavior after winning the war in the Phillippines was even more egregious. Commodore Dewey vanquished a latter-day Spanish armada in Manila. But the U.S. government did not leave the country in the hands of the native insurrectionists whose struggle the U.S. had taken up. To the contrary, Washington decided to wage a campaign of terror and widely-administered (and amply documented) torture to destroy the Filipino freedom fighters. More than three years of bloody struggle were needed until U.S. forces had finally overcome the people whose liberation they espoused. Unlike the indirect suzerainty the U.S. exercised in Cuba, the Phillippines became an American territory, not achieving the freedom for which the U.S. had initially invaded until after Work War II, half a century later.

History is more unheeded Cassandra than directive Nostradamus. It can warn of dangers, but can never actually predict. The anticipated American subjugation of Iraq will occur in vastly different circumstances than previous U.S. occupations. But it is worth remembering that the best of American intentions for both Cuba and the Phillippines were tragically wrenched into an unintended, and quite extended, colonial burden. In terms of the wasted lives of thousands of Americans, Cubans, and Filipinos, the cost was horrific. The economic price tag for the occupation was also enormous. In the long run, however, the worst consequence may have been the moral cost of American interventions reflected in an imperialist mirror in which much of the world still see us.


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Brandon Wallace - 3/8/2003

I think Dr. DiFonzo is either an idiot, naive, or a Republican in camouflage! The United States involvement in the freedom struggles of the people of the Phillipines and Cuba had NOTHING to do with Humanitarian efforts!!! It had EVERYTHING to do with White Man's Burden and getting their hands on the plantation systems in both of those countries!!! I cannot believe this man.... If I were a filipino or a Cuban I would curse Teddy Roosevelt's name every day of my life!


Gus Moner - 3/6/2003

As I said to Mr. messner, Mr Messner you have made a good query.

“Why go back to 1898, when you could go back to 1945? How about the Marshall Plan, the rebuilding of Europe, the rebuilding of Japan? Aren't these better examples of more recent US rebuilding?

Or do you only wish to point out the failures?”

I went there to create a more comparable set of situations in which to study the issue. The 1898 people involved are much more like the Iraq of today that Germany and Japan were. Thus, I felt that those territories and their conditions were a better context in which to examine the nation building case. It's not that I want to point to failures, I want to compare as similar scenarios as can be found, not fanciful chest-beating ones.


Gus Moner - 3/6/2003

Mr Messner you have made a query.

“Why go back to 1898, when you could go back to 1945? How about the Marshall Plan, the rebuilding of Europe, the rebuilding of Japan? Aren't these better examples of more recent US rebuilding?

Or do you only wish to point out the failures?”

I went there to create a more comparable set of situations in which to study the issue. The 1898 people involved are much more like the Iraq of today that Germany and Japan were. Thus, I felt that those territories and their conditions were a better context in which to examine the nation building case.


Herotodus - 3/5/2003

Japan
Germany.

Enough said.


Chris Messner - 3/4/2003

Why go back to 1898, when you could go back to 1945? How about the Marshall Plan, the rebuilding of Europe, the rebuilding of Japan? Aren't these better examples of more recent US rebuilding?

Or do you only wish to point out the failures?

Chris


Gus Moner - 3/3/2003

The author makes a good point here about the failure of US policies to bring democracy and create an example for other nations of the region in the case of Cuba. I would like to add that the Philippine rebels already fighting Spain continued to fight after the US took dominion, for a good decade or more after the conquest.

The result of that experiment, one of the most significant of which is the dictatorship of Marcos after independence, was also nefarious. The archipelago is still mismanaged, corrupt and divided by bloody religious and ethnic strife. US forces have just returned there, in violation of the Philippines’ constitution. If anything may end up looking like Vietnam, it’s this beleaguered archipelago.

That being said, the recent history has been one sprinkled with certain improvements in basic rights and some prevalence of an orderly rule of constitutional law, in contrast with the Marcos dictatorship. Whilst to date it cannot be judged as disastrous as the Cuban experience, that bit of history is still being written, and serious dangers lurk in that nation as well as Indonesia, the latter having nothing to do with the article or the USA.