WHEN IRREGULAR Iraqi militias temporarily slowed George Bush's legions back in March, an American anti-war acquaintance of mine declared the Anglo-U.S. invasion a Vietnam-like quagmire in the making, complete with a "credibility gap" created by a delusional president and his equally disoriented secretary of defense. More recently, I've read foreign critics comparing the ragged and violent U.S. occupation of Baghdad and its environs -- American soldiers firing fatal rounds into crowds of demonstrators and guerrilla fighters picking off GIs a few at a time -- to the brutal Russian occupation of Chechnya.
But while both analogies contain more than a few grains of truth -- especially in their self-defeating arrogance -- neither really applies to a land that has been a colony far longer than it has been an independent nation. And given the rich material available, I'm alarmed at how little we've heard from "experts" about the recent colonial history -- particularly the 4 decades of British domination -- of the territory formerly known as Mesopotamia.
Now that Iraq is our colony (with a little left over for Her Majesty), it's worth learning something about how the British came to rule Iraq and, more relevantly, how the British Empire ultimately failed to master its subject peoples and was forced to withdraw from its richest dominions.
For my part, the most entertaining and useful path to knowledge is the fantastical career of T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Mythologized to the level of caricature -- in print by the British media and on film by the director David Lean -- Lawrence's life story (including his creepy sexual behavior) is the best argument I can think of for cutting our losses now and turning over the mess we've made to the United Nations.
Of the many accounts of Lawrence's adventures among the Arabs and his ascent to hero of the realm, the one that I've found most cogent is Phillip Knightley's and Colin Simpson's The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, published in 1969. From it we learn that Lawrence -- far from "liberating" the Arabs and Kurds from Turkish despotism -- was a relentless double dealer, who always placed the interests of the Crown (and himself) ahead of anything else.
He sold out his Arab "friends" with breathtaking regularity, because, as Knightley and Simpson put it, "his main task from the beginning of the revolt was to bring the Arabs firmly under British control, and make certain that they remained jealous and divided."
Lawrence's modus operandi for achieving these noble goals (which included keeping the French away from the oil fields) was neatly summed up in a British Foreign Office directive, circa 1916, which tends to undermine the great man's claims to idealism: ". . . [T]he most important thing of all (at all events when we are getting into touch and buying people and so on) will be cash." Lawrence evidently took this recommendation to heart, say Knightley and Simpson, and thus was Arab nationalism harnessed "in the service of British war aims."
Not that Lawrence and the British were averse to using bullets and bombs to manage their new "mandate" in Iraq after the spoils of World War I had been divided by Britain and France. The nationalist Indian politician Jawaharal Nehru, while imprisoned by the British in the 1930s, mocked British and French pretensions that the "sole aim" of their takeover of the Ottoman Empire was emancipating its peoples and creating autonomous nations.
"They shoot and kill and destroy only for the good of the people shot down," Nehru wrote in 1934. "The novel feature of the modern type of imperialism is its attempt to hide its terrorism and exploitation behind pious phrases about 'trusteeship' and the 'good of the masses' and the 'training of backward peoples in self-government.' "
In Iraq, whenever Arabs and Kurds turned troublesome -- usually over British-manipulated stooges masquerading as independent government officials -- His Majesty's military could be called upon to enforce democratic values.
When Iraqis expressed dissatisfaction with their "free" parliament in 1925, the Kurds turned especially belligerent. As Nehru put it, the Kurdish outbursts "were suppressed by the British Air Force by the gentle practice of bombing and destroying whole villages" (Saddam Hussein had to learn his statecraft from somebody).
In British aerial discipline, Lawrence was also active. According to Knightley and Simpson, the British chief of air staff, Hugh Trenchard, designed his aircraft policing system "with Lawrence's help."
The British imperial system couldn't last, no matter how good the public relations, how charismatic the "Arabists" (such as Lawrence and Harry St. John Philby), or how brutal the repression. Exhausted by two world wars, the British ran out of money and the will to maintain order. But they were also driven out by the very nationalist doctrines that they had so hypocritically planted after World War I.
In the 1950s, Arab nationalists trained by the British military took the concept of self-determination to its logical conclusion and deposed or killed Britain's royal proxies in Iraq and Egypt. Earlier, in India, Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful revolution had deprived Britain of the crucial military force that had previously supported the Raj in its suppression of movements for independence. Practically speaking, the British imperium ended at Suez, in October 1956, when U.S. President Eisenhower subverted the British-French invasion to retake the canal after Egypt's Gamal Abdal Nasser (the Saddam of his day) had nationalized it.
The lesson of all this is that you cannot indefinitely rule an entire people against its will, no matter how many press releases you issue promoting "freedom." Thus, when I see the nattily dressed American viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, prattling on about restoring order and bestowing liberty, I think of the post-World War I British high commissioner for Iraq, Sir Percy Cox. Iraqi Arabs and Kurds know their colonial history better than we do, and it's fair to say that even the most pro-Western among them (outside of the claque surrounding Ahmed
Chalabi) smell a rat.
Saddam or no Saddam, a nationalist resistance will organize itself around the single issue of American occupation -- a movement that is likely to submerge most religious and ethnic differences.
The question isn't what the Arabs will do, but whether, over the long term, the Americans will support the recolonization of Iraq. Yet how can the Americans make an informed judgment if nobody bothers to examine the British experience?
Already we are deluged with fatuous intellectual support for the notion that the United States can succeed where the British failed -- the purest example being Robert Kaplan's article in the current Atlantic Monthly, which lists "ten rules for managing the world." Like so many American journalists in the early days of "counter-insurgency" in Vietnam, Kaplan is enamored of our Lawrences: the Special Forces, sporting green berets. If only, pines the smitten Kaplan, these polymath professional soldiers could be unleashed by "timid politicians" to "nurture" the forces for liberal democracy in the Third World (just as we nurtured the South Vietnamese army).
Kaplan's phrase "Be light and lethal" was essentially the watchword of the Vietnam fantasists in the CIA and the military.
There is too much narcissistic nonsense in Kaplan's essay for it to be quickly summarized, but two approving quotations explain most of his thesis. One, from an unnamed Green Beret: "I wish people in Washington would totally get Vietnam out of their systems." The other, from a retired Army major about the benefits of a dual personality: "A Special Forces guy has to be a lethal killer one moment and a humanitarian the next" -- like John Wayne in The Green Berets, or Lawrence of Arabia, the sometime sadist, sometime masochist.
"Unfortunately," writes Kaplan, "for the United States the mission is not always everything. . . . [I]t is often hamstrung by diplomacy and domestic public opinion." What a shame. Perhaps we might want to try a little counter-insurgency here at home.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
Copyright 2003 Providence Journal