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.
Like Maude's before him, Bush's policy in Iraq has resulted in a series of unintended outcomes. In the face of ever-increasing violence, the stirring rhetoric about Iraq becoming a beacon of democracy in the Middle East has been quietly dropped. Instead, the operation in Iraq has been placed on the frontline of the global fight against terrorism: It is better to battle terrorists on the streets of Baghdad than in Brooklyn or Houston, the mantra goes.
Where does this leave U.S. policy toward Iraq? Historical studies often divide military interventions into three general phases. The first phase, the initial decision to invade, is shaped by common misperceptions that the conflict will be short and that military force can be used to achieve political objectives. World War I began with an assumption that British troops would be home by Christmas; Bush declared "mission accomplished" after three weeks.
The second phase is marked by a slow realization that both these assumptions are wrong. The policy failure leads to increasingly desperate attempts to stay the course, to pour in ever greater numbers of troops, gambling on a resurrection of the initial policy. This middle stage comes to an end with the decision to disengage. Interestingly, this choice -- admitting defeat and going home -- is usually taken by a new government.
The 1920 revolt, followed by the change of government in London in 1922, led to a prolonged but largely unsuccessful attempt to do nation-building on the cheap. The final transformation of policy was marked by another change of government. The election of May 1929 resulted in a Labor administration. The new foreign policy team found it easier to identify the contradictions at the heart of Britain's relations with Iraq and find ways to overcome them. It recommended Iraq for unconditional membership to the League of Nations in 1932, unceremoniously dumping Britain's commitment to building a democratic and stable state.
Iraq became a fully independent state that same year. But it was unable to defend itself against its neighbors, or to impose order without assistance. The government was ultimately dependent on the British air force to guarantee its survival.
Eighty years later, after failing to stabilize Iraq, the U.S. government has come face to face with the high costs of the new "forward-leaning" foreign policy of the Bush doctrine. Comparisons with other military interventions suggest that Bush will continue to pursue a largely unvarying policy in Iraq, deploying all the troops and resources at his disposal in an attempt to correct the mistakes that have been made. The result, as the president himself has recognized, will be to push the difficult decisions about the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq onto his successor.
History, however, has two final disturbing lessons for the next president. The governing elite nurtured by the British to take their place -- the Iraqi royal family and their associates brought to the country in 1921 -- proved unfit for the purpose and were swept aside by a military coup in 1941. The British army was forced to reinvade and restore them to power. Yet even this second invasion was not enough. The violent instability that engulfed Iraq and resulted in the rise of Saddam Hussein was triggered by the murder of the royal family by Iraqi army officers in July 1958. The crime was committed in the name of Arab nationalism, as a strike against British interference in a sovereign Arab nation.
Here is what Britain's history of failure at building a democratic state in Iraq in the 1920s and '30s tells George W. Bush and his successors: If, like Gen. Maude, they fail to deliver on the promises of a better future for the Iraqi people, then Iraq will continue as a font of violent instability long after those who made the promises have been buried.