Who created Iraq and why
Amidst the election-year rancor over how best to defend ourselves against Islamic fascist attack, some historical perspective with regard to Afghanistan and Iraq might add a touch of civility to what as become a vulgar, partisan brawl.
Historically, Afghanistan is a collection of wild tribes led by fierce warlords. A strong central government able to call the shots in every province has never been the case and probably never will be. Today, America’s vital interests are well served by an Afghanistan no longer under the control of al Qaeda or the Taliban. As a result of our military operations, women enjoy vastly improved treatment.
Moreover, persuading NATO, an alliance formed to defend Western Europe from Soviet invasion, to extend itself halfway around the world to Afghanistan is a stunning diplomatic accomplishment. For now, anyway, our mission in Afghanistan is generally successful.
Iraq, however, has proven more difficult. The underlying reason is because Iraq is not a real country. Iraq is an artificial construct formed in the minds of British intelligence agent, Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and Winston Churchill.
Miss Bell, the enormously wealthy heiress and aficionado of all things Arab, lived in Baghdad for years and had a personal relationship with many of the movers and sheiks of the Middle East. Fluent in Arabic, Turkish and Persian, she was Great Britain’s agent-in-place.
Even before the outbreak of World War I, Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had been convinced by First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John “Jackie” Fisher, that conversion of the Royal Navy from coal to oil would allow British warships to move faster, to have greater range, and to be refueled at sea. Moreover, the sailors would be spared the physical exhaustion of loading coal.
So, in 1921, Churchill, by that time Colonial Secretary, convened a conference in Cairo for the purpose of reducing the human and monetary costs of maintaining Great Britain’s oil interests in the Middle East. Skillfully playing off one sheik or dynastic pretender against the other, Churchill, Bell and Lawrence cobbled together a compromise based on territory rather than religious or tribal preferences. And, like the proverbial committee charged with designing the horse, they came up with the geographic camel we know today as Iraq.
Miss Bell, Lawrence and Churchill were able to achieve a modicum of regional peace by divvying up oil lands between the powerful sheiks. But their true objective was to secure Great Britain’s oil interests in the region by agreement, rather than by the blood of her soldiers. Essentially, what they achieved at the 1921 Cairo Conference lasted until 1958.
Today, in northern Iraq, the Kurds provide an example of what the Sunni and Shia regions of Iraq could be; provided, they substitute cooperation for bloody confrontation. But, failing that, Nicollo Machiavelli might advise: Let the Sunnis and Shia kill each other in urban combat while we hold up what is, in essence, a peaceful, de facto Kurdistan as the path toward a regionalized, federal democracy for Iraq.
While you can lead a horse (or camel) to water, sometimes the problem is getting them to drink. But if we focus our military presence on insuring that the peoples of Iraq profit from the flow of oil to the industrialized world, we may begin to see an Iraq that is strong enough to defend itself yet not so strong as to provoke more aggressive attempts at subversion by Iran.
The November elections will indicate our willingness or unwillingness to exhibit the bulldog determination of Sir Winston Churchill when he said of the first British victory of World War II at El Alamein, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
But, for Americans habituated to conflict resolution within the span of a 60-minute TV drama or even a football game, the “end of the beginning,” may not be fast enough.
Retired Army officer and syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was named a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and is a former Research Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Writing as William Penn, he is the co-author of two novels about terrorist attacks against the United States.
©2006. William Hamilton.