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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Learning from History


The U.S. situation in Iraq bears an eerie resemblance to the British capture and takeover of the same area at the end of the First World War. Consider the parallels.

During the war when the British troops were moving into the territory of the Ottoman Empire, London promised to support Arab independence, although it was actually planning to take control of the area. As the war ended in Europe, England and France carved up the Middle East: the British got what is now Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Iraq. The League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to rule those territories.

Fighting broke out almost immediately in Afghanistan, an English protectorate. In 1920, the Arabs rioted against the Jews in Palestine; later in that year the people of Iraq revolted. The explanation given for those troubles was that the British forces were undermanned, an excuse similar to that offered by the Pentagon for the lack of control in Baghdad. In 1920, London blamed the uprising in Iraq on outsiders, just as the White House is doing today.

The British, like today’s Americans, had to contend with different ethnic groups, religions, and tribes, all of which were in constant conflict. The UK government appointed as civil commissioner a military man from India who favored direct rule to control the area. His deputy, the legendary Gertrude Bell, wrote, “the people of Mesopotamia [Iraq] . . . had taken it for granted that the country would remain under British control and were as a whole content to accept the decision of arms.”[1] This sounds surprisingly similar to claims made before the war about the benign attitude Iraqis would have after we had ‘liberated’ them from Saddam Hussein.

In 1920, a Baghdad leader accused Bell, “You said in your declaration that you would set up a native government drawing its authority from the initiative and free choice of the people concerned, yet you proceed to draw up a scheme without consulting anyone.”[1] Does this sound at all familiar?

At that time, British soldiers were being killed regularly. In 1919, three young British captains were assassinated. The British brought in an experienced officer from India to take the place of the murdered officers; he was assassinated a month after he arrived. London then sent a Middle East expert, Colonel Gerald Leachman, who discovered on arriving that six British officers had been killed in the previous ten days. The Arabs continued to attack the British, leading the administrator to conclude that the only way to solve the problem was “wholesale slaughter.”[1] Leachman lasted only eight months before a tribal sheikh shot him in the back.

In Iraq today, American soldiers are being killed at a rate of about one each day. Patrols, columns, and movements of U.S. troops find themselves ambushed, shelled, and subjected to grenade attacks. Amid the turmoil the violence shows no signs of abating. The Shiites want an Islamic state; the Sunnis prefer a more secular system in which they would hold the power; and the Kurds would like independence. There is little prospect for peace.

We have become enmeshed in a situation that has no good alternatives. If we leave, there will probably be war between the Sunnis and the Shiites; the Kurds will declare independence. If we stay in order to create a democratic or civil government, we will be subject to continuing attacks. Democracy under the best of circumstances takes years to develop; these are not the best of circumstances.

In 1921, Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, “solved” the problem of direct rule by picking Emir Faisal ibn Hussain, a member of the Hashemite family, to be king. Under a treaty that King Faisal was forced to sign, the Brits remained in control but behind the scenes. In 1932, between domestic pressures to cut the expenses of the mandate and the strong, sometimes violent objections of the Iraqis, London granted independence to that country.

As George Santayana said, “Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Staying in Iraq will bring nothing but greater expense, more bloodshed, and more hatred. We need to establish a government as soon as possible. We must get out quickly.

When the British government put together three provinces from the former Ottoman Empire, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, many officials believed that lumping the Kurds with the Sunnis and the Shiites was unworkable. Nevertheless, London decided on including Mosul with the others because it had oil. The U.S. government should consider whether putting asunder what the British put together might make for better governance. Each of these groups by itself has a chance at establishing a working civil or religious government based on participation by its citizens. Together, no such government will work.

To avoid the necessity of trying to hold an artificial and unnatural Iraqi state together by force—as the West has been doing in Bosnia for eight years—the United States should withdraw its forces quickly and allow a coalition of the willing to transition the various Iraqi groups to self-determination. The creation of multiple, independent countries might cause friction with some of Iraq’s neighbors; but, in the wake of a destabilizing U.S. invasion, that alternative is the best among many poor ones. It allows the United States to avoid the quagmire of indefinite occupation and, in the long-term, affords the best chance for regional stability by aligning national borders with ethnic or religious boundaries. If we insist on a single Iraq, we will be there until we tire of being killed.


[1] The material on the British experience in Iraq and the quotes are taken from David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, New York: Henry Holt, 1989.
Thomas Gale Moore is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Member of the Board of Advisors at The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.