I started reading “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq” by Stephen Kinzer. I finished up the chapter named “Bound for Goo-Goo Land.” It summarizes the Spanish-American War which Secretary of State John Hay called “a splendid little war.”
The American involvement in the Spanish-American War started when the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor due to an explosion. There is some disagreement to whether it was a mine, or a boiler explosion. If it were a mine, was it the Spanish or Cuban guerrillas? (I can only imagine if such an event took place today, we’d have a virulent 2/15 truth movement or claims of Maine sinking being an inside job.) Officially, the Maine was on a “friendly visit.” Regardless, the Spanish were blamed. Práxedes Sagasta tried unsuccessfully to resolve the situation peacefully with both the Americans and Cubans.
American sentiment seemed fixed with slogans such as “Remember the Maine! To Hell With Spain!” As for the Cuban guerrillas, they saw little to no reason to negotiate. They had fought the Spanish for years and were on the verge of driving them out.
Anti-imperialists feared that the Spanish-American war might be used for American imperial ambitions. To ensure that the war was merely to end Spanish tyranny, Senator Henry Teller of Colorado proposed an amendment to the U.S. declaration of war. It stated that the United States “hereby disclaims any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.” (source)
With the moral rectitude of freeing an oppressed people from an evil tyranny, America went to war. It was a rout. The Spanish, a crumbling empire and already weakened by fighting Cuban guerrillas for years, were no match for the American war machine. 385 Americans were killed in action although approximately two thousand more would die later of diseases and wounds they received.
After victory, the Americans decided the Cubans were unfit for self-rule.
“Self-government!” General Shafter snorted when a reporter asked him about it. “Why, these people are no more fit for self-government than gunpowder is for hell.” (pg. 41)
News correspondents reported that instead of embracing American soldiers, the Cubans seemed “sour,” “sullen,” “conceited,” “vain and jealous.” One wrote of his astonishment to find that they were not “filled with gratitude towards us.” (pg. 42)
America established its future role in Cuba with the Platt Amendment.
The Platt Amendment, 1903
Article I. The Government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes, or otherwise, lodgment in or control over any portion of said island.
Article II. The Government of Cuba shall not assume or contract any public debt to pay the interest upon which, and to make reasonable sinking-fund provision for the ultimate discharge of which, the ordinary revenues of the Island of Cuba, after defraying the current expenses of the Government, shall be inadequate.
Article III. The Government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the Government of Cuba. . . .
Article V. The Government of Cuba will execute, and, as far as necessary, extend the plans already devised, or other plans to be mutually agreed upon, for the sanitation of the cities of the island, to the end that a recurrence of epidemic and infectious diseases may be prevented, thereby assuring protection to the people and commerce of Cuba, as well as to the commerce of the Southern ports of the United States and the people residing therein….
Article VII. To enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States. (source)
Basically, exclusive rights to negotiate treaties, the right to intervene in internal affairs of the island, and the right to establish military bases. In short, Cuba was not a sovereign country.
The first Cuban president shows the role America would have to play in the country. Tomás Estrada Palma was the first president of Cuba and oversaw adoption of the Platt amendment into the Cuban constitution. He also signed a bill lowering tariffs on American products. Estrada Palma was reelected in 1906 but the opposition claimed election fraud. US troops put down the revolt, although Estrada Palma resigned. Another American government was established under Taft. (source)
Now, Iraq is finding itself in similar circumstances. American interests and Iraqi interests are not the same. So, when John McCain says there are no Thomas Jeffersons in Iraq. Maybe, what he really means is that there are not enough Tomás Estrada Palmas.
So, when the McCain’s of this world say that maybe I should admit I was wrong about this war, that the surge is working. Know that I’m holding the Bush administration to its original mission, a secular democracy in Iraq, not that adding troops could reduce violence levels down to what they were in 2005.
If the aftermath of the Spanish-American War in Cuba proves anything, it is that America needs to leave and not try to impose conditions on the newly liberated country for our businesses. Failure to do so will likely lead to a revolution that the U.S. will not particularly care for. We shouldn’t be basing our opinion on what pundits tell us what will happen in Iraq. It should be based on what Iraqis believe their country will look like without a U.S. presence. For the sole reason that it will and should be the Iraqis who determine the future of their country.
The contradictory Teller and Platt amendments show us that we should all be skeptical of grand claims of selfless liberation. Nor, should we have been surprised when Iraqis greeted the American liberation guardedly. Nor, the remarks from politicians and media that if something bad happens, it is all the Iraqis’ fault. There is a line. A line that is obscured by grand words and allusions, but is clear by our actions. America is on the wrong side of that line, and the wrong side of history. The longer we stay, the farther we go, the clearer it will be, the more delusional we become.