Dallas, TX – In a May 4 KERA commentary, Lee Cullum offered some welcome historical perspective on the situation the U.S. faces in Iraq. More than a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, after endless pointless discussions of post-war Germany and Japan, it's about time that we begin to discuss the lessons of British and French failures in the Middle East.
Iraq, Jordan, and what was then called Palestine were literally invented by British civil servants, military officers and colonial officials in 1920. France invented Syria and Lebanon. British imperial dreams and ambitions drove the creation of the new countries, but the desires of the people who lived in the Middle East were studiously ignored and discounted by both British and French governments. Every single war and conflict in the Middle East since, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, traces its origin to the actions of the French and British to subvert the desires and hopes of the people of the region and put imperial policy first. The new rulers of the Middle East were greeted with massive revolts that strained their treasuries and killed thousands of colonial soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of new colonial citizens. The British and French, sworn to advance democracy and civilization in the Middle East, killed thousands with new technology of air power and poison gas.
Ms. Cullum noted that Britain could not afford the huge cost in lives and money of forcing dominion over Iraqis in 1920, and so Britain turned to a pliable proxy king to rule Iraq. She noted with approval that the implanted monarchy lasted for 37 years until 1958, and that today the U.S. must find an appropriate proxy to rule Iraq in the way that Americans would wish, and so our soldiers can come home. She noted that today such a proxy would likely be a moderate cleric who could be relied upon to both unite Iraq and remain receptive to American policy.
This is precisely the wrong lesson to draw from the colonial history of the Middle East. Just as Britain had no right to dictate the future of Iraq in 1920, the United States has no right to dictate the future of Iraq today. Britain's colonial settlement in the Middle East has led to seemingly endless wars and tremendous human suffering. If the United States once had the credibility to paternalistically guide the future of Iraq, that credibility has now been forfeited in the death, destruction, and disgrace that followed last year's invasion. If Iraq is to be at peace, and a nation of all its citizens, it must be for Iraqis to decide how to proceed. For Americans to continue insist on their fitness and right to judge how others may live, guarantees not peace, but tragedy. This is the lesson of Britain's history in the Middle East.
Michael Provence is Assistant Professor, Clements Department of History, SMU. He earned a PhD in Modern Middle Eastern History from the University of Chicago, and was a two-time Fulbright scholar in Syria and a Mellon Fellow. He is the author of "The Great Syrian Revolt," and several articles and book chapters on social history and revolt in Syria in the 1920's.
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