A cautionary tale from colonial Baghdad
By Geoffrey Aronson
Published: March 3 2003 20:17 | Last Updated: March 3 2003 20:17
Contrary to the conventional wisdom that prevails in Washington, history did not begin on September 11 2001 - certainly not the history of western attempts to put Iraq right. Wherever US forces will tread, the British have already been there. Whatever reforms American and other well-meaning advisers will endeavour to implement in a post-Saddam Iraq have already been tried by an earlier generation of British colonial administrators. Iraq's calamitous and brutal political history does not foretell the future - but it should offer a cautionary tale for those who believe that whoever is installed in Saddam Hussein's bloody wake must improve upon his legacy, or that it is in Washington's power or interest to make certain that he does so.
A conquering British army, composed largely of Indian conscripts, marched into Baghdad in 1917. The advance against the Ottoman forces from Basra had been costly in men and equipment but Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude, commander of British forces, was magnanimous in victory.
General Tommy Franks, who commands the US forces that are likely soon to advance on Iraq, would do well to recall Maude's March 19 1917 proclamation "to the people of Baghdad", because Maude's words capture the spirit of what Gen Franks can be expected to declare when he in turn celebrates victory.
"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators," Maude declared. "It is [Britain's] wish that you should prosper even as in the past, when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science and art and when Baghdad city was one of the wonders of the world."
Maude's words were drafted by Sir Mark Sykes, whose place in history would be assured by his co-authorship of an audacious treaty that divided Iraq and much of the Middle East between the first world war's victors: Britain and France. Maude promised his new subjects "a future of greatness" and invited them "through your nobles and elders and representatives to participate in the management of your civil affairs". Sadly, within months he succumbed to disease and died.
His lofty sentiments, we are told in an account of Iraq by Stephen Long- rigg, a long-serving colonial official, made little impression. Within a few years, the British were under assault from forces opposed to foreign rule. By the early 1930s, Iraq had suffered the first of many military coups. The troubled legacy of British power in Baghdad helped to create and sustain the Ba'ath party . . . and Saddam Hussein.
Certainly Gen Franks and President George W. Bush will not be entangled as were the British in the thankless task of ruling Iraq. There is no need for a colonial administration on the British model. The US does not need to be physically present in the country to enjoy its riches. It will take care that oil will flow in appropriate quantities and at a suitable price after the troops depart. The victors will settle on a formula that the British patented and which Washington is now practising in Afghanistan: coming to terms with the centres of power in the country - today as always centred on the military - and investing their leadership with a thin veneer of democratic form. A better form of government will rightly be left to the Iraqi people to determine.
The question of non-conventional weapons is more problematic. It is possible that military occupation may be more effective than the current inspection regime in assuring the discovery and destruction of Iraq's arsenal. Permanent occupation by US troops, however, would be needed for there to be certainty that it was not being rebuilt.
One of the attributes of sovereignty is having autonomous power to produce arsenals of conventional and, alas, non-conventional weapons. Washington opposes the ability of Iraq to exercise this power but it has come to terms with the fact that these weapons are part of the arsenals of its friends - India, Pakistan and Israel come to mind. Until Mr Hussein invaded Kuwait, his aspirations in this regard were viewed benevolently if not enthusiastically and as a source of profit. It is a fact of strategic life that Iraq is surrounded by countries with growing stores of non-conventional weapons. Past practice suggests that a post- Saddam Iraq will continue to see value in obtaining such weapons and that many nations will reluctantly come to terms with this policy.
If Maude were alive today, he would no doubt be making final preparations for an assault on Baghdad. One wonders, though, whether, almost 90 years after his military triumph, he would warn Gen Franks about the ambiguous fruits of victory.
The writer is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace