Iraq is the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the fertile area around and between the two great rivers, the territory between Baghdad, the ancient capital of the entire Arab world, and Basra, over 500 miles away where the great rivers converge as the Shatt-el-Arab before entering the Persian Gulf.  Some say Iraq is “artificial,” but there would still be an Iraq even if she lost her Kurdish region or some Sunni Arab districts to Syria.  

The story of British Iraq can be read as an allegory for problems and temptations that have recurred today.

Around 1900, Germany started to finance, advise, arm, and train the Ottoman Empire, and the British saw this as a threat to their own empire in Asia.  They defeated this threat by the terrifyingly radical expedient of making an alliance with Russia and waging war on Germany.  The destruction of the Ottoman Empire was a by-product of the war.  Troops from India landed at the head of the Persian Gulf to take Basra.  They set off up the Tigris but ran into serious trouble.  Nine thousand British soldiers surrendered at a place called Kut; this provoked British fury.  The Bedouin tribes were stirred up against the Turks with gold and promises, and Sir Stanley Maude was sent to Basra with reinforcements.  Maude did much better: He captured Baghdad in March 1917.  Maude, hailed as “Systematic Joe,” became a popular hero—the “Stormin’ Norman” of his day.  He died in Baghdad a few months later of cholera.

The British army collected just about everything in the Middle East.  But British heads, rinsed of caution by the excitement and single-mindedness of war, filled up with generous ambitions and romantic nonsense.  General Allenby rode into Jerusalem on a white horse; Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild a letter promising the Jews a national home in Palestine; T.E. Lawrence posed for photographs in Arab garb, which helped to generate the pleasing idea that British success meant liberty for the Arabs; General Maude had promised Iraq self-government and was commemorated with a statue as the “Liberator of Baghdad”; the Greeks were promised Constantinople; the Kurds, a country. 

In 1900, London did not seek more territory.  By 1918, however, the old rulebook lay in tatters.  The Arab world was going to be free and British: The Russians and the Germans could do absolutely nothing about it, and the French were but a minor nuisance.  Sir Percy Cox, Britain’s senior imperial official for the region, was annoyed one day by Arab mulishness during negotiations over the borders of Kuwait, so he simply snatched up a map, drew some lines, and told the assembled emirs that they would get what he gave them and no more.  King Ibn Saud knew exactly what to do: He groveled as only aristocrats can grovel.  Ibn Saud declared that Sir Percy was both his father and his mother and could have half his realm if he wanted it.

This placated Cox.  Ibn Saud became a great man, founded a kingdom—Saudi Arabia—on bluff and British subsidies and, in due course, showed what he thought of England by giving the entire Saudi oil concession to an American consortium.

After 1919, things began to fall apart.  By dividing up the Arab world and leaving the oil companies to do as they pleased, Britain lost her chance to be a benevolent patron.  London was discarding promises like stock options on a failing company: Constantinople became up for grabs, and Kurdistan was off the table.  The Iraqis detested the idea of a British “mandate” for Iraq, handed out by the League of Nations, from whom Britain could obtain whatever mandate she wished.  In spring 1920, Islamic secret societies plotted terrorism and revolt.

The Shia Arabs—Iraq’s majority population—took up arms: Holy war was proclaimed from the famous city-shrines of Najaf and Karbala.  The desert Bedouin rebelled; so did the Kurds of Mosul.  Cheated of a united Kurdistan, they did not want Mosul given to Arab Iraq.  (At that time, the Kurds and the Turks were companions in the slaughter of Armenian and Assyrian Christians.)  The rebels were united but helpless.  The British possessed the world’s largest air force.  Suppressing the 1920 revolt—shooting up camels and villages and lobbing gas bombs—was not very difficult.  Ten thousand Iraqis were reported killed, scarcely five percent of the number killed in Desert Storm.

A hands-on attitude to Iraqi government was now less attractive; it was time for subtlety.  In 1918, all the talk had been of nation-building, democracy, and progress.  By 1921, it was divide et impera and forward to the past: deals with tribal chiefs, feudal tenures, nomads against townsfolk, Shia against Sunni, big landowners against landless laborers.  Churchill, then colonial secretary, came out to Cairo to confer with Arabist Gertrude Bell and other experts.  They decided to turn Iraq into a constitutional monarchy, with the promise that the mandate would end once Iraq was more mature and willing to stand up in Britain’s favor.  A suitable monarch was found: Prince Feisal ibn Hussein of the royal family of Mecca, the Hashemites.

Feisal had been Lawrence of Arabia’s companion in arms.  He had recently been proclaimed king of Syria by the Arabs but was promptly thrown out by the French, who also had a “mandate.”  The French were given a shrunken Syria so that Britain could keep the rest of it—Palestine and the Transjordan—as well as the oil-bearing Kurdish Mosul.  Feisal had been humiliated, but the British thought well of him—rightly, as it turned out—and they decided he could rule Iraq instead of Syria.  It was, at this stage, useful that Feisal had a reputation as a leader of the pan-Arab cause.  There were elections of a sort, newspapers, and lots of governments: The political system was more open than anything Iraq has seen recently.

The other decision made at the fateful Cairo conference was to give Feisal an army of his own, as opposed to protection supplied from India steaming into Basra whenever the going got rough.  This army would follow the same imperial convention the Turks had used in Iraq: a heavily Sunni officer corps for a largely Shia rank-and-file.

The mandate remained a political burden for the new regime; in 1929, the British pledged to drop it.  But everything the British did contained escape clauses that rendered their best gestures useless or even provocative.  There was also, of course, the oil.  The Iraq Oil Company, derived from a pre-war Ottoman concession, was a front for British, French, and American companies.  When the Iraqis asked for shares, they were given nothing.  The Kirkuk reserves were proved in 1927, but large-scale production did not start until 1938, since the concession companies did not need the oil.

The mandate ended in 1932, but, in return, Iraq had to continue to host two British air bases and allow the British military free movement.  Britain was powerful enough to force the hand of Iraqi governments.  Political loyalty was steadily corroded by British refusal to stop Jewish immigration to Palestine.  Britain attempted to control Palestine by making the withdrawal of her favor catastrophic for either side—an evil ruse that has commended itself to Washington in recent years.  No Iraqi government could ignore pan-Arab feeling, which was becoming widespread, especially in the army.  

King Feisal died in 1933, and his son lacked the skill to sustain his position.  The result was a shrinking of executive authority.  There was an army coup in 1936—the first outbreak of this plague in the modern Arab world—though the new boss was killed a year later.  In 1938, the Kuwaiti assembly petitioned for union with Iraq, and there were riots when the sheik dissolved the assembly in haste.  King Ghazi ibn Feisal prepared to invade Kuwait, but the plan was dropped when he was killed in an automobile crash.  Rarely has one motorist killed so many people—53 years after he hit a tree.

In 1939, Iraq refused to declare war on Britain’s enemies.  When the Germans invaded Greece in 1941, Prime Minister Rashid Ali tried to refuse permission for Britain to increase the number of her troops in Iraq.  He ended up laying siege to the RAF’s Habbaniyah airfield while the Luftwaffe tried to fly in support.  But the Iraqis were, as ever, helpless against airpower, and they were driven off by a handful of obsolescent machines.  Once again, the British army took Baghdad; this time, however, every British expert warned that the long-term consequences did not bear thinking about.  As British troops arrived, a pro-Nazi minority of Iraqis made murderous attacks on the world’s oldest Jewish community.

After 1941, the Iraqi government was led by Nuri es-Said, a remarkably faithful anglophile of the 1916 generation of pan-Arabs.  (A former Ottoman officer, he learned English in a POW camp in India and became a Hashemite advisor in 1916.)  He was loyal to Britain through thick and thin.  While Britain remained active, he survived, although Iraq was disturbed by riots in 1948 and 1952.  But when Nuri es-Said took Iraq into a pro-Western defense club, his reward was Nasser’s active enmity, and his position became fragile when the United States demolished British prestige in the Suez crisis.

In 1958, there was another army coup d’etat.  This time, the king and the royal family were executed and strung up for public display.  Nuri es-Said was caught fleeing Baghdad; his body was tied to a car and dragged until it fell to pieces.  Britain’s prestige had ebbed too far.  Her future commitments would be small and strictly military.  The monarchy had not been a one-dimensional façade, but its collapse was welcomed by the populace.  Here endeth the allegory.

The new Iraqi republic tried to seize Kuwait in 1961, but the British turned up in sufficient force to keep them out.  The Iraqis have always wanted Kuwait, and they do not understand why their claim should lapse simply because they renounce it whenever threatened with a big stick.  Kuwait is small but, like Iraq, not entirely artificial.  It has been autonomous since the early 18th century, and, before 1914, Ottoman authority was nominal.  It is simply a jurisdiction for the one great natural harbor at the head of the Gulf, and not to have it is frustrating for the Iraqis, who lack anything but the smallest and most inconvenient strip of coast.  It was once natural for Iraqis to believe that they could absorb Kuwait with something not far from consent, if only they could get rid of the Al Sabah ruling house.

The republican regime in Baghdad was an alliance between a military dictator and a communist party that was becoming the strongest force in the cities.  The combination was potent but unstable, and it provoked army officers to another coup and the assassination of General Qasim in 1963.  The replacement was the Ba’ath Party—pan-Arab socialists—who purged their rivals from the army.  Both the party and army were now in the hands of a faction whose leading light was Saddam Hussein, the author of the dangerous Russo-Iraqi treaty of 1972.  The risk was that the Iraqi communists, Moscow’s favorites, would grow powerful as advocates of Kurdish and Shia rights.

The Iranian-Western response was to assist a Kurdish rebellion.  It flourished until the shah cut off support in return for Saddam’s concessions in the complicated but important dispute over navigation in the Shatt-el-Arab.  Saddam then executed the communist leaders.  He also reassessed his options when the shah was overthrown.  As the Sunni boss of a largely Shia state, he suddenly felt vulnerable.  He believed, however, that the revolution of the ayatollahs had destroyed the shah’s army, and he invaded Iran, expecting swift victory.  His war proved a disaster, and Iraq came close to total defeat; Saddam, however, was rearmed by the Russians and the French and backed by Washington.  Neither the Americans nor the Saudis dared let him lose.  There was minimal Western concern about Saddam’s weapons when he used nerve gas against the Iranians and, later, the Kurds.

Saddam’s mad gamble burdened Iraq with eight years of war debt and huge casualties.  So he gambled again.  Seizing Kuwait was a quick financial fix.  Like the attack on Iran, it may have been encouraged by someone in Washington.  The theory that Saddam was tricked, that the occupation and liberation of Kuwait was a ruse for establishing U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, though plausible, remains a hypothesis.  But Washington’s apparent obsession today with Iraq’s weapons is as instrumental as its apparent indifference before 1990.

There is now a broader purpose to this obsession: the legal-political attack on everyone else’s right to military technology.  U.S. policy in Iraq, despite its formal inconsistency, has successfully demonstrated that it is only with U.S. permission that a state wins battles or loses them and that it is only in the U.S. interest that a state is rearmed or disarmed.  In this view, the United States has done well enough not to need to invade, and Washington still might not.  But Saddam was a venomous opponent of the West: The fact that he had to be saved from Khomeini did not mean that he should ever be secure.  Saddam was left in power in 1991 for reasons too murky to probe.  The simplified version passed around was that the country would fall apart without a dictator, so Iraq had to become Saddam’s prison cage.  Today, however, all Arab regimes look disaffected; hence, regime change for the most vulnerable.

Acquiring Iraq by force as a client state would be a leap into the unknown.  There will be no easy place to stop: The British spent 40 years marching toward the distant sound of failure.  Even if Saddam could be replaced by someone as plausible as King Feisal, fear of American power would reach new levels of hysteria.  Still, there must be an end to the prison-cage strategy.  An invasion might be less cruel than another decade of bombing and blockade; then again, it might be worse.

King Feisal’s Iraq was crippled by the British strategic presence, the greed of the oil companies, and the Zionist albatross.  A U.S. operated Iraq would be similarly burdened.  Perhaps Iraqi society is so shattered and demoralized that the trends before 1980 toward socialism, sectarianism, and separatism have abated.  After Saddam, will the Iraqis patiently line up for Western medicine like the Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles?  Eastern Europeans endured something more than communism: They suffered a violation of their identities.  Reintegration with Europe became a potent myth (hence their untypical submissiveness).  The Iraqi equivalent of the reintegration dream is pan-Arabism, free Palestine, and Islam; the religious-cultural loyalties are mainly Shia.  America could not get past stage one as the patron of a post-Saddam Iraq without adding Islamophilia to the p.c. cookbook and imposing a settlement for Palestine that would be punishingly difficult for Israel to accept.

Since this scenario is unlikely, we must wonder how serious the demand for regime change really is.  A new set of scowling army officers would leave Iraq where it is, if that is what is wanted.  Even if a friendly Iraq were available to the Western coalition that takes Baghdad, it would be expensive, wearing on the nerves, and unlikely to last.  That sort of experiment was not desired in 1991.  Back then, however, the United States thought it had friends in the region.  After September 11, Washington may have wised up.  Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have betrayed America.  Neither state, however, could be dealt with quickly, both were still needed, and there were no alternative regimes except worse ones.  Threats, bribes, and India have kept Pakistan semicompliant: If more compliance were needed, Pakistan’s nuclear weapon would become a weapon of mass destruction, which it seems not to be at present.  The Iraq crisis makes sense as an exercise in indirect intimidation; it is as much about the future of Saudi Arabia as were the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

Deposing Saddam—by war or by the clinical use of threats—suggests an experiment in regime-making.  It is worth considering what sort of experiment.  Since 1921, Iraqi regimes have seemed largely a function of foreign policy.  But foreign policy has been a gyrating weathercock.  The Iraqi social structure has been pulled to pieces over and over again.  The struggle for power is all-important, because the oil revenue flows into Aladdin’s lamp: Whoever controls it wins the opportunity to generate the economy he wishes.

Iraq has the potential to be the leading Arab state in the region.  As long as she threatens the Gulf and is threatened by Iran, however, she can find only trouble.  With her Sunni elite minority, Iraq should have opted for a quiet life, but everything had to be sacrificed to Saddam’s pursuit of glory.  This is surely about to end.  What is next?  There are today enough educated Iraqi exiles for the United States to put together a ruling faction, perhaps a new ruling class.  A conqueror could abolish the military hegemony of the Sunni officers.  This would undo the mistake the British made long ago.

Yet civilian Sunni leadership would need constant Western protection.  A new Shia leadership might be possible, but it would be less Westernized and might reconnect Iraq to the fate of her Iranian neighbor.  A complete reversal of U.S. policy toward Iran would seem logical, but the need to betray Israel would then quickly grow, and, thus, it is unlikely.  An American Iraq would, therefore, likely take the form of a Sunni regime reinforced and disguised by an Islamicized political correctness directed at the Saudis, the Iranians, and local mujahideen.  If it could deliver peace and relative economic success, this regime might work in the short term.  Unless the anti-Americanism of the Arab world dissolves in the next decade, however, it would be a rough ride.  Iraqis are the best-educated people in the region: If any Arab economy can succeed, theirs can.  Implicit in an American protectorate, however, would be a gamble on an economic transformation so steep and radical that it would remake society.  Once in Baghdad, only excess can succeed.

The chances of failure are more obvious than the prospect of success.  The attempt, however, can run and run.  As the British found, power in Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Cairo, and access to all of the oil, is a great lure.  Since there is almost certainly no existing grand project, the empty minds will fill with something.  At the heart of imperialism, new or old, is the dangerous partnership of cynicism and imagination.