Karl E. Meyer: Forty Years in the Sand

From time to time an article comes along in a respected journal like Harper's Magazine (the oldest periodical publication in the U.S.), which is not digital yet deserves to be. I've had the time recently to type an excerpt of one such article written by Karl E. Meyer called Forty Years in the Sand: What happened the last time freedom marched on Iraq. It was published in the June 2005 issue of Harper's. I only wish people could learn from history. This is especially prescient in the case of Iraq. Enjoy.

Update: Found entire version online.

In March 1917, Anglo-Indian forces finally captured Baghdad, a triumph greeted with energetic huzzahs in London but that posed a fresh quandary. How was Mesopotamia to be governed? Baghdad's conqueror, Major Genereal Stanley Maude, cabled an answer: "Local conditions do not permit of employing in responsible positions any but British officers competent to deal with Military authorities and with poeple of the country. Before any truly Arab facade can be applied to edifice it seems essential that foundation of law and order should be well and truly laid."

This understanding of the local politicsf was disputed by the Foreign Office's Sire Mark Sykes, who cautioned the cabinet that "if you work from India you have all the old traditions of black and white, and you can not run the Arabs on black and white lines." And so from London came the now famous proclamation, composed by Sykes, affirming that "Our armies have not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators." Additionally, he invited the people of occupied Mesopotamia to share in shaping the new government and urged the rapid withdrawal of Anglo-Indian administrators.

In reality, the British were uncertain about how much power they were willing to accord to Mesopotamia's diverse peoples. For all his rhetorical devotion to Arab rights, the same Mark Sykes had also negotiated the pact with FFrance divvyfing Ottoman lands like chattel in a divorce suit. When Londonf found few competent replacements for British administrators in Mesopotamia it decided simply to retain them at their posts. As the American historian David Fromkinff remarks in A Peace to End All Peace, General Maude was placed in the difficult position of preaching self-rule while discouraging its practice: "The compromise formula at which the British had arrived might have been expressly designedf to arouse dissatisfaction and unrest: Havingf volunteered what sounded like a pledge of independencefffffffff to an area that had not asked for it, the military and civil authorities of the occupying power then proceeded to withhold it."

Gertrude Bell, resettled in a river-bank bungalow, was given the grand if ambiguous title of oriental secretary to Major Percy Cox, who was made civil commissioner of all Mesopotamia. When Cox was summoned to London and Teheran for extended consultation, in April 1918, Wilson was named acting civil commissioner with the rank of lieutenant colonel. "I can scarcely realize that I am at present responsible to Government for the administration and political frelations of the whole of this vast area," the marveling colonel reported to his family.

Three days before the November 11 armistice, Britain and France released a bold and surprising joint declaration promising peoples "long oppressed by the Turks" fa free choice of future governments. Referring to Syria and Iraq, the declaration vowed that the Allies had "no other care" but to support the governments that oppressed peoples "shall have adopted of their free will."

The declaration was an obvious response to Woodrow Wilson's idealistic Fourteen Points, proclaimed earlier that year. The twelfth point affirmed that all nationalities under Turkish rule were owed "an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development." One might deride the Fourteen Points (France's Premier Georges Clemenceau complained that God was content with Ten), but with Wilson about to make a triumphant entry into Allied capitals, they were impossible to ignore. The subsequent perceived failure of Britain and France to honor this politically expedient pledge sowed an enduring sense of betrayel.

In Baghdad, Colonel Wilson conveyed a different sense of betrayal to Sir Arthur Hirtzel, the permanent under-secretary of the India Office in London:

The Declaration incolves us here on the spot in diplomatic insincerities which we have hitherto successfully avoided and places a potent weapon in the hands of those least fitted to control a nation's destinies.... The average Arab, as opposed to the handful of amateur politicians in Baghdad, sees the future as one of fair dealing and material and moral progress under the aegis of Great Britain.... Our best course is to declare Mesopotamia to be a British Protectorate under which all races and classes will be given forthwith the maximum degree of liberty and self-rule compatible with good and safe government.

Bell for the moment agreed with much of this. She supported WIlson's campaign to unite dissimilar Ottoman provinces, and also believed the Franco-British declaration ill-advised. Yet she did not think Iraq should become a protectorate, and was dismayed by the ignorance of senior policymakers, who shrugged off as inconsequential the rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Bell's understanding of the situation in Iraq was shaped to a large degree by Colonel T.E. Lawrence, a friend from her days at the Arab Bureau in Cairo. Known to Bell as "Imp" or "Dear Boy" and to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, he began his wartime service with a bizarre mission in 1916 to free Andlo-Indian troops beseiged by Turkish forces north of Basra by offering one million poinds to the Turksih commander to let them go. Even though Lawrences's misssion failed, it became routine British practice to offfer cash "subsidies" to Arab chieftains. The essential cynicism of this approach was confirmed when long-classified official records became public in the 1960s. Here is how Lawrence himself justified supporting Hussein and his son, the Emir Faisal:

[Hussein's] activity seems beneficial to us, because it marches with our immediate aims, the break-up of the Islamic "bloc" and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states he would set up to succeed the Turks would be as harmless to ourselves as Turkey was before she became a tool in German hands. The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion, and yet always ready to combine against an outside force.

This statement is difficult to reconcile with Lawrence fame as a gallant champion of the Arabs. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he tried to square an ethical circle that confronts intelligence officers in the field: "I could see that if we wond the war the promises to the Arabs were dead paper. Had I been an honourable adviser, I would have sent my men home, and not let them risk their lives for such stuff." Yet Arab help was necessary to a "cheap and speedy" British victory in the East. Better to win and betray than lose.

After The War to End Wars, the victors convened in Paris from January until July 1919 to negotiate a peace settlement. The Big Three--Woodrow WIlson, British Prime MInister David Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau--conferred regularly to discuss peace terms, address the claims of stateless peoples, and parcel the spoils of defeated empires. Yet the distracted potentates and their aides would frequently forget what they had already decided, or promised.

In the territorial horse-trading, Wilson won his campaign to bind the three unlike provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul into the single new nation of Iraq. The British had favored a state for Kurdistan, T.E. Lawrence sought separate emirates for Basra and Baghdad, the Emire Faisal wanted a federation of Syria and Iraq, and the French tried to attach the oil-rich Mosul to Syria.

As the Paris conference ended, only the outlines of the new Middle East had been agreed upon. Having initially talked of an independent state for Armenians and Kurds, the Americans began to pull back from active involvement in the region. The Notion of a Jewish national home in Palestine was still so nebulous that even the Emir Faisal, nudged by Lawrence, gave it qualified approval.

France readied for its ostensibly transitional mandatory authority in Syria and Lebanon, while Britain prepared for a similar oversight role in Iraq and Palestine. In a letter to Aubrey Herbert, a friend and diplomatic insider, Gertrude Bell lamented: "O my dear they are making such a horrible muddle of the Near East. I confidently anticipate that it will be much worse than it was before the war--except Mesopotamia which we may manage to hold up out of the general chaos."

In the even, Bell was mistaken. By June 1920, armed insurrection had erupted along the upper Euphrates, allegedly fueled by bribes from Faisal's agents. But gold alone could not explain the rebellion's spread down the Euphrates to Najaf and Karbala, then to the muddy alleys of Basra and the slums encircling Baghdad. A worried Gertrude Bell noted that the Sunni and Shiite faithful were closing ranks in shared hostility to the British occupation. An embattled Baghdad command rushed reinforcements from town to town. Colonel Wilson appealed urgently for an increase in the 80,000 occupation force, but at a time when London was contending with a deepening recession, postwar debts, and riots or terrorism in Egypt, Ireland, and India. More injudiciously, Wilson posed a quasi-ultimatum: either send more troops or withdraw entirely. Then, as the Iraqi rebellion peaked in August, France deposed of Faisal from his Syrian throne.

In a letter to The Times, Lawrence found it unsurprising that the occupation regime had collapsed, since its manager were 450 British officers and not a single Mesopotamian. He wondered, "Why should Englishmen (or Indians) have to be killed to make the Arab Government in Mesopotamia, which is [our] considered intention?. . . Of course, there is oil in Mesopotamia, but we are no nearer that while the Middle East remains at war." He followed with another salvo in the London Sunday Times

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.

How long, he asked in conclusion, "will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of a form of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?"


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