THE FOLLY OF EMPIRE
What George W. Bush Could Learn from
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson
By John B. Judis. Scribner. 245 pp. $24 Finding lessons in the past is easy; finding the right lessons in the past is hard. Seventeen months ago, the United States went to war in Iraq. The advocates of war argued that American troops would be welcomed as liberators by the people of Iraq in much the way American troops were welcomed as liberators by the people of France in 1944. Critics contended that the more accurate analogy was the American occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War of 1898, an occupation that quickly degenerated into a bloody and demoralizing struggle against a nationalist insurgency.
John B. Judis, a senior editor for the New Republic, takes the critical view and argues that if the current administration had paid more attention to the experiences of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, it wouldn't have gotten America into the mess Iraq is proving to be. More precisely, if George W. Bush had drawn the right conclusions from the experiences of Roosevelt and Wilson, the United States wouldn't find itself facing a growing insurgency in Iraq, with few (and ever fewer) allies.
In point of fact -- though this isn't Judis's argument -- Bush is both a Rooseveltian and a Wilsonian, after his own fashion. He is a Rooseveltian in his willingness to use American power unilaterally to secure American interests. He is a Wilsonian in his desire to promote democracy overseas. Bush's contribution to the theory and practice of American diplomacy is to employ Rooseveltian means for Wilsonian ends: to attempt to democratize the world by American unilateral force.
Judis wishes Bush were a different kind of Rooseveltian and a different Wilsonian. In slightly more than 200 pages, Judis races through 200 years of American history, but he devotes greatest attention to the two decades at the beginning of the 20th century. He depicts Roosevelt as learning a hard truth in the Philippines. Roosevelt agitated for war against Spain and for the annexation of the Philippines, only to discover that the Filipinos bitterly resented the American takeover. The Americans eventually prevailed, but not before losing more lives than were lost in the war against Spain, and not before committing atrocities that made the American public shudder. Ultimately Roosevelt came to question the imperial project; before the end of his presidency he declared the Philippines to be America's "heel of Achilles." The lesson Judis draws for Bush is the obvious one: that imperialism is much more difficult and dangerous than it seems.The lesson Judis would have Bush learn from Wilson is the need to enlist the cooperation of other countries in the pursuit of American goals. Wilson became an internationalist as a result of World War I, which convinced him that the nationalistic approach to foreign affairs had run its suicidal course. His alternative was embodied in the Treaty of Versailles and particularly the League of Nations. Nor were Wilson's views idiosyncratic: Judis correctly points out that Wilson's failure to win approval of the treaty in the United States signaled not popular disapproval of the League of Nations but the constitutional capacity of a minority in the Senate to block international commitments.
Judis's historical argument is persuasive. Or maybe it's recent reality that is persuasive. There's no question by now that the neo-imperialists of the Bush administration have been chastened by the events in Iraq, much as Roosevelt was chastened by the events in the Philippines. Calls for expanding the Iraq intervention to Syria or Iran haven't been heard for many months. And the president's decision to turn to the United Nations and NATO for help in Iraq signals a shift toward Wilsonian internationalism, for appearance's sake at least.
If Judis gets the big historical issues right, his grasp of detail sometimes slips. Like many other authors on the period, he misses the intended irony in John Hay's remark that the conflict with Spain was a "splendid little war." Hay worked for Roosevelt but was hardly of the same cast of mind. To claim, as Judis does, that William McKinley's policies toward Cuba and its neighbors "destabilized the Caribbean for much of the next century" presumes that stability was the inherent condition in the region. This isn't demonstrated in the text and is probably wrong. When Judis asserts that "with Wilson, America became understood as a multiethnic nation," he ignores the fact that the country was about to alter its immigration laws in ways that would rigorously limit diversity.
But it is Judis's subtle misunderstanding of Roosevelt's change of heart regarding the Philippines that is most significant. Roosevelt recognized that he had misjudged the Filipinos, but, more to the point, he recognized that he had misjudged the American people. He had thought Americans would become as enamored of their country's civilizing mission as he was; only when he realized that they hadn't, and wouldn't, did he throw in the towel on American imperialism. And this is the crucial lesson of history for the present. George W. Bush can be as resolute as he wants regarding Iraq, vowing to finish the job the United States started there. But the fundamental constraint on policy is, and always has been, the resolve of the American people. Americans followed the lead of the imperialists in 1898 only to turn back when they discovered that empire was more expensive and less rewarding than the imperialists had told them it would be. Iraq isn't the Philippines, but the American people are the American people, and there is little reason to think they'll bear the cost of empire more patiently now than they did then. The clock is ticking for Bush; his "heel of Achilles" moment awaits. *
H.W. Brands is the author of "TR," "Woodrow Wilson" and "What America Owes the World."