White man's burden

Geraldine Sealey
April 15, 2004 11:50PM (UTC)

Yesterday we asked War Room readers to share any and all insights into this perplexing comment from the president's Tuesday night press conference: "Some of the debate really centers around the fact that people don't believe Iraq can be free; that if you're Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can't be self-governing or free. I'd strongly disagree with that," President Bush said.

We had not heard much about the debate over the "brown-skinned people's" aversion to democracy, but we knew our well-informed visitors would have some ideas. Readers Andy D. and John G. both suggested that the remark hearkened back to the U.S. takeover of the Philippines from Spain in 1898, and the sentiment of Rudyard Kipling's infamous "White Man's Burden," which served as a justification for controlling and "civilizing" the islands. William Howard Taft, McKinley's man in the Philippines, frequently called the Filipinos his "little brown brothers."


Then we remembered that Bush actually cites the U.S. "liberation" of the Philippines from "colonial rule" as a useful parallel to his mission in Iraq.

Here's a little history lesson on how we "liberated" the Philippines: "After a revolution against Spain that began in 1896, Filipino revolutionaries had succeeded in liberating virtually the entire Philippines by the time the Spanish-American War drew to a close in 1898. However, rather than encouraging the Filipinos in their attempt at democracy, the U.S. precipitated a war, paid Spain $20 million, and proceeded to annex the Philippines as a colony [On February 4, 1899], after weeks of provocative maneuvers by the U.S. military, an American soldier killed a Filipino soldier crossing a bridge thus precipitating a war. Reports in the U.S. distorted the incident as an act of Filipino aggression. About 126,000 U.S. troops were deployed to fight in the Philippine-American War. More than 6,000 Americans were killed or wounded in the first two years alone. Still, the death toll was very lopsided. Bolos and a few firearms were no match for heavily armed American troops. An estimated 616,000 Filipinos died as a direct result of the war. The U.S. government responded to continuing anti-war sentiment and on July 4, 1902, it officially declared that the war was over. U.S. troops were not removed, however, and significant military encounters continued until 1913. The U.S. government dismissed these as activities by 'bandits.'"

As the New York Times reported from Bush's trip to Manila last fall, in his hailing of the U.S. "liberation" of the Philippines, Bush "skipped past Washington's own 48-year-long occupation of this archipelago of 7,000 islands. Even the State Department's own briefing papers about the Philippines, distributed to Mr. Bush's traveling retinue, notes that 'U.S. administration of the Philippines was always declared to be temporary and aimed to develop institutions that would permit and encourage the eventual establishment of a free and independent government.' That is very close to Mr. Bush's description of his plan for Iraq."


The notion of the White Man's Burden has been revived in some defenses of Bush's actions in the Middle East. As noted by the Monthly Review, neo-con Max Boot quotes Kipling's poem in the final pages of his book "The Savage Wars of Peace." The editors wrote: "Boot insists that Kipling was right, that 'colonists everywhere, usually received scant thanks afterward.' Nevertheless, we should be encouraged, he tells us, by the fact that 'the bulk of the people did not resist American occupation, as they surely would have done if it had been nasty and brutal. Many Cubans, Haitians, Dominicans, and others may secretly have welcomed U.S. rule.' Boot's main implication seems clear enough -- the United States should again 'Take up the White Man's burden.' His book, published in 2002, ends by arguing that the United States should have deposed Saddam Hussein and occupied Iraq at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. That task, he implied, remained to be accomplished."

Is Bush taking on the White Man's Burden in Iraq? Does he see it as his duty to bring democracy to his brown-skinned brothers there?

If you believe the hawkish Daniel Pipes, Bush's grand plan won't work. An Iraqi strongman is in order because the Muslims there just don't take to democracy, Pipes says. Well, sorry, Mr. Pipes, the president strongly disagrees. (Thanks to reader John M. for this last link.)

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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