Failing in Baghdad -- The British Did It First
At the center of Baghdad's neglected North Gate War Cemetery, near the edge of the old city walls, stands an imposing grave. Sheltered from the weather by a grandiose red sandstone cupola, it is the final resting place of a man from whom George W. Bush could have learned a great deal about the perils of intervening in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Stanley Maude was head of the British army in Mesopotamia when he marched into Baghdad on a hot, dusty day in March 1917. Soon thereafter, he issued the British government's "Proclamation to the People of Baghdad," which eerily foreshadowed sentiments that Bush and his administration would express 86 years later: British forces, Maude declared, had entered the city not as conquerors, but as liberators.
Maude had arrived in Baghdad after a long and arduous military campaign. British forces had been fighting the Ottoman army for 2 1/2 years and had suffered one of the worst defeats of World War I in the six-month siege of the eastern city of Kut, which had ended in an ignominious surrender to the Turks in April 1916.
Having rallied from that loss and finally reached Baghdad, Maude tried to create common cause between the British army and the city's residents, whom he saw as having been oppressed by 400 years of Ottoman rule. "Your lands have been subject to tyranny," he declared in his proclamation, and "your wealth has been stripped from you by unjust men and squandered." He promised that it was not "the wish of the British Government to impose upon you alien institutions." Instead, he called on residents to manage their own civil affairs "in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain."
Maude did not live to see the failure of his efforts to rally the people of Iraq to the British occupation. He died eight months later, having contracted cholera from a glass of milk.
After his death, British policy toward Iraq changed repeatedly as the army attempted to dominate the country and suppress the population, while the government strove to adjust to Britain's diminished role in the international system after WWI. Initially, the aim was simply to annex the territory and make it part of the Empire, run in a fashion similar to India. But Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech in January 1918 did in that idea. In setting out America's vision for the postwar world, Wilson expressly attacked the duplicitous diplomacy of European imperialism, which he blamed for dragging the world into prolonged military conflict.
This meant that a modern, self-determining state was now to be built in Iraq. Britain was to take the lead, but its effort was to be continually scrutinized by the League of Nations, which had been set up under Wilson's watchful eye at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war.
In an echo of what is happening under the U.S. occupation, hopes for a joint Anglo-Iraqi pact to rebuild the country were dashed by a violent uprising. On July 2, 1920, a revolt, or thawra, broke out along the lower Euphrates, fueled by popular resentment of Britain's heavy-handed behavior in Iraq. The British army had set about taxing the population to pay for the building of the Iraqi state, while British civil servants running the administration refused to consult Iraqi politicians, judging them too inexperienced to play a role in the new government.
The rebellion quickly spread across the south and center of the country. Faced with as many as 131,000 insurgents armed with 17,000 modern rifles left over from the war, the British army needed eight months to regain full control of Iraq; 2,000 British troops were killed, wounded or taken prisoner and 8,450 Iraqis were killed. To make matters worse, the British government was forced to pour troops back into Iraq, long after the end of the war, to stabilize the situation.
The revolt forced Britain to devolve real power to Iraqi politicians. At the head of this new administration the British placed a newly created king, Faisal ibn Hussein, famous for his association with Lawrence of Arabia during the war. But the revolt had as much influence in Britain as it did in Iraq itself. The "blood and treasure" expended in putting down the violence made the continued occupation extremely unpopular. The public's discontent reached its peak in the general election campaign of November 1922. The leader of the opposition, conservative Andrew Bonar Law, captured the national mood when he declared: "We cannot alone act as the policeman of the world."
Newspapers and candidates organized their electioneering around the "bag and baggage" campaign demanding that Britain withdraw from Iraq as soon as it could. After defeating wartime coalition leaders David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, the victorious Bonar Law pledged that "at the earliest possible moment, consistent with statesmanship and honour, the next government will reduce our commitments in Mesopotamia."
U.S. presidential candidates now campaigning to seize the White House in 2008 should be forewarned, however: It took Britain 10 more years to jettison its financial and military commitments to Iraq. During that period, a number of governments struggled to reduce the size of the forces deployed in Iraq and the amount of money being spent there. They strove for a decade to stabilize the country and meet Britain's pledges to the international community while trying to placate domestic opinion. The tensions involved in this exercise -- building a state from scratch with a hostile population, under severe budgetary constraints and in the face of rising domestic anger -- ultimately led to the failure of the whole exercise.