Ross Douthat offers a pregnant historical analogy:
These twists and turns make Iraq look less like either Vietnam or World War II — the analogies that politicians and pundits keep closest at hand — and more like an amalgamation of the Korean War and America’s McKinley-era counterinsurgency in the Philippines. Like Iraq, those were murky, bloody conflicts that generated long-term benefits but enormous short-term costs. Like Iraq, they were wars that Americans were eager to forget about as soon as they were finished.
I think the Iraq-Philippines analogy is an interesting one, because it’s something that both proponents and detractors of American imperialism can embrace as illustrative. I recall that George W. Bush himself analogized his imperial adventure in Iraq to McKinley’s in the Pacific. And while the situations don’t bear any resemblance in detail, there is a certain vague similarity in that while I would say counterinsurgency in the Philippines “worked” it’s hard for me to see that it actually achieved anything. I mean, suppose the Philippines had obtained independence from the United States in the 1890s rather than the 1940s. How would my life be worse? How would any American’s life be worse? What “long-term benefits” actually accrued to us as a result of the counterinsurgency effort?
It seems to me that unless you look at victory and conquest as being their own reward, it’s hard to see any. Anti-American rebels lost, but we didn’t really win anything of note. We spent a lot of money, suffered some casualties, killed a lot of people and in exchange got some military bases that were overrun by the Japanese as soon as it looked like they might be strategically useful.