A few weeks ago Arthur Schlesinger attempted to frame the War in Iraq and the actions of President Bush in an historical perspective. In addition to unfavorable comparisons to four modern presidents, Professor Schlesinger cited Congressman Abraham Lincoln’s 1848 opposition to James K. Polk’s War with Mexico to inveigh against the evils of "preventative war" and the Bush doctrine of preemption.

The day before, Thomas Bray, attempting to associate Bush with Lincoln in a positive formulation, told the story of the Civil War president, who made miscalculations based on faulty prewar intelligence, faced down unstinting criticism of his cantankerous secretary of war, curtailed civil liberties and outlasted “embittered Democrats, [who claimed that] the war had been an utter failure [and] demanded that the administration bring the troops home.”

Most American wars have compelling parallels, for they all exist within the the same basic political framework. The title of Bray’s essay, “President Lincoln Lied Us into War Too,” is instructive. Presidents carry the burden, in our democratic-republic, of making the case for war ("selling the war") and convincing Congress and the American people that war is in our vital national interest and the only rational alternative.

For this reason, American presidents have tended to manipulate and exaggerate the threats posed by our intended enemies and taken great latitude in outlining the casus belli when they call us to war. This is true of Polk prior to the Mexican-American War, both Wilson and Roosevelt during the extended preludes to American entry into the two World Wars, and Bush 41 in the run-up to the first Gulf War (to cite a few examples).

And it gets worse. Once committed, the president also has an especially onerous but critical burden during a time of hostilities: maintaining popular support for “his” war. One obvious key: keeping the struggle brief and securing overwhelming and indisputable victory. Win big and win fast.

Perhaps no president understood that better than Polk, who saw the window for victory in the Mexican-American War as extremely brief and inextricably linked to internal political realities; he ramrodded the war effort in accord with that timetable. Or Harry Truman, who undoubtedly opted for an atomic conclusion to the war in the Pacific, at least in part, after mulling over similar domestic considerations. But all of our war presidents have run a race against time.

For too many Iraq pundits, the most popular (sometimes the only) frame of reference is Vietnam, in which Lyndon Johnson exhausted the patience of the American people and laid the groundwork for a humiliating defeat for the United States. But, in terms of analogy, almost any American war is informative in terms of the dynamic. The four-year campaign to subdue resistance in the Philippines following the relatively effortless victory in the war with Spain in 1898 is an important case study that we too often neglect.

In that vein, please consider this concise summary of the "Philippine War" from Alan Brinkley’s survey text. Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt won the "race against time" in this instance, but not by much. Perhaps this was one of the examples Donald Rumsfeld was thinking of when he privately predicted we were in for a “long hard slog.”

Note: I have intentionally used an edition that is out of date (American History, 10th Edition, McGraw-Hill, 1999) so that we will not wonder if Brinkley was projecting current events on to the past (also the emboldens are mine):

"Americans did not like to think of themselves as imperial rulers in the European mold. Yet like other imperial powers, the United States discovered—as it had discovered at home in its relations with the Indians—that subjugating another people required more than ideals; it also required strength and brutality. That, at last, was the lesson of the American experience in the Philippines, where American forces soon became engaged in a long and bloody war with insurgent forces fighting for independence.

The conflict in the Philippines is the least remembered of all American wars. It was also one of the longest (it lasted from 1898 to 1902) and one of the most vicious. It involved 200,000 American troops and resulted in 4,300 American deaths, nearly ten times the number who had died in combat in the Spanish-American War. The number of Filipinos killed in the conflict is still in dispute, but it seems likely that at least 50,000 natives (and perhaps many more) died. The American occupiers faced guerilla tactics in the Philippines very similar to those the Spanish occupiers had faced prior to 1898 in Cuba. And they soon found themselves drawn into the same pattern of brutality that had outraged so many Americans when [Spanish General Valeriano “Butcher”]Weyler had used them in the Caribbean.

The Filipinos had been rebelling against Spanish rule even before 1898. And as soon as they realized the Americans had come to stay, they rebelled against them as well. Ably led by Emilio Aguinaldo, who claimed to head the legitimate government of the nation, Filipinos harried the American army of occupation from island to island for more than three years. At first, American commanders believed the rebels had only a small popular following. But by early 1900, General Arthur MacArthur (father of General Douglas MacArthur), an American commander in the islands was writing: “I have been reluctantly compelled to believe that the Filipino masses are loyal to Aguinaldo and the government which he heads.”

To MacArthur and others, that realization was not a reason to moderate American tactics or conciliate the rebels. It was a reason to adopt much more severe measures. Gradually, the American military effort became more systematically vicious and brutal. Captured Filipino guerillas were treated not as prisoners of war, but as murderers. Most were summarily executed. On some islands, entire communities were evacuated—the residents forced into concentration camps while American troops destroyed their villages, farms, crops, and livestock. A spirit of savagery grew among some American soldiers, who came to view the Filipinos as subhuman and at times seemed to take pleasure in killing almost arbitrarily. One American commander ordered troops “to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me…Shoot everyone over the age of 10.” Over fifteen Filipinos were killed for every on wounded; in the American Civil War—the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history to that point—one person died for every five wounded.

By 1902, reports of the brutality and of the American casualties had soured the American public on the war. But by then, the rebellion had largely exhausted itself and the occupiers had established control over most of the islands. The key to victory was the March 1901 capture of Aguinaldo, who later signed a document urging his followers to stop fighting and declaring his won allegiance to the United States. (Aguinaldo then retired from public life and lived quietly until 1964.) Fighting continued in some places for another year, and the war revived intermittently until as late as 1906; but the American possession of the Philippines was now secure.

In the summer of 1901, the military transferred authority over the islands to William Howard Taft, who became the first civilian governor. Taft announced that the American mission in the Philippines was to prepare the islands for independence, and he gave the Filipinos broad local autonomy. The Americans also built roads, schools, bridges, and sewers; instituted major administrative and financial reforms; and established a public heath system. The Philippine economy—dominated by fishing, agriculture, timber, and mining—also became increasingly linked to the economy of the United States. Americans did not make many investments in the Philippines, and few Americans moved there. But trade with the United States grew to the point that the islands were almost completely dependent on American markets.

In the meantime, a succession of American governors gradually increased Filipino political autonomy. But not until July 4, 1946, did the islands gain their independence.