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Historical Analogies: Iraq is to Vietnam is to…

We're not an imperial power, as nations such as Japan and Germnay can attest. We're a liberating power, as nations in Europe and Asia can attest as well.--President Bush, at his recent news conference

Historical analogies should always be viewed with a certain skepticism. Historians, especially, are aware of critical discontinuities even as we search for those continuities that provide the narrative thread to historiography. On the other hand, historical analogies are helpful in highlighting the resonances between different historical periods and policy decisions.

Most recently, historical analogies between Iraq and Vietnam have been utilized by historians, pundits, and politicians. Citing the parallels between the insurgency in Iraq and the Tet Offensive, the credibility gaps suffered by various administrations, and the respective quagmires that occupation has unleashed, opponents of the present policy in Iraq are relying on historical analogies to validate their criticism. In turn, proponents of the Bush Doctrine and the occupation of Iraq denounce all attempts to find historical connections between Iraq and Vietnam.

Given the fact that the interpretations of the Vietnam War remain contested terrain, it should not be surprising that such historical analogies between Iraq and Vietnam elicit strong partisan responses. It seems, however, that those partisans are still occupying the narrow terrain of conservative or liberal interpretations. Conservatives continue to see Vietnam as a noble effort that was undermined by a weak political will, a sensationalist and defeatist media, and a treasonous anti-war movement. Liberals, on the other hand, see Vietnam as a tragic mistake that went on for too long and was too much of a strain on the financial and human resources of the United States. Unfortunately, neither interpretation takes seriously the structural continuities in U.S. foreign policy that led to the Vietnam War, such as Cold War containment, anti-communist ideology, and fear of independent anti-colonial uprisings.

Beyond the historical epoch of post WWII U.S. foreign policy, there are other continuities that suggest an even longer connective thread, winding back to the first U.S. global imperial venture - the Spanish American War, specifically the campaign against the insurrection in the Philippines. As a leading spokesperson for the imperial ambitions of the U.S. in the Philippines, Senator Albert Beveridge invoked the same God that George W. Bush has called upon, minus the overt white supremacy evident in imperialists like Beveridge. "God has not prepared the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation. … No! He has made us the master organizers to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among the savage and senile peoples of the earth."

The evangelical mission articulated by Beveridge is also evident in the Bush Doctrine, a doctrine premised on Bush's sense that "Freedom is not America's gift to the world, but Providence's." In a more secular mode, the neo-conservatives (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby, Feith, Rice, et. al.) who formulated the policy to "liberate" Iraq and establish a beachhead of "democracy" in the Middle East have much in common with those who believed with President McKinley that the U.S. would be rescuing the savage Filipinos from barbarism. Of course, the arrogance endemic in both efforts to reshape a foreign culture in the image of the United States accounts for the moral blindness, a blindness that led to massive slaughtering of Filipinos and is on that same tragic trajectory in Iraq.

Other commonalities between U.S. policy in Iraq and the Philippines underscore the geopolitics of empire. In the Philippines, the U.S. was seeking coaling stations in its expansion to a two-ocean navy and as a stepping stone to the potential markets of China. In Iraq, the U.S. intends to set up permanent military bases for potential threats against Syria and Iran and to protect U.S. interests in oil and gas in the Middle East and Caspian Basin. Unlike Iraq where the politics of oil is central to U.S. policy, the policy in the Philippines was not driven by immediate economic interests.

Yet, one cannot overlook the continuities in the U.S. drive for the control of resources as a fundamental component of its commitment to empire, a commitment that reaches back to the recesses of early nationhood. There the search for historical analogies will take us back to the earliest expansion of the U.S. into Indian territory with the battle cry of "civilizing the savages." Perhaps we need to re-read one of the great extended historiograhic essays on the U.S. imperial imperative - Empire as a Way of Life by William Appleman Williams - in order to understand the devastating continuities in U.S. foreign policy. Not only do we find stark and sobering historical connections, but we are also left with this important cautionary note: "Whatever its benefits or rewards, empire is expensive. It costs a very great deal of money. It kills a large number of human beings. It confines and progressively throttles spontaneity and imagination. It substitutes paranoid togetherness for community." And in the startling conclusion to his book he reminds us of our common fate as historians and citizens of the empire: "I know why I do not want the empire. There are better ways to live and there are better ways to die."