Monday, November 27, 2006

Why are we in Mesopotamia?

Listening to the British Defence Secretary Des Browne's comment today that "I can tell you that by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower by a matter of thousands", reminded me of the words of an earlier politician. He wrote on 1st January 1921 how "I feel some misgivings about the political consequence to myself of taking on my shoulders the burden and the odium of the Mesopotamia entanglement". If you haven't already guessed, or recognised the quote, it was the highly ambitious Winston Churchill. He had just been appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies, with responsibility for the Middle East. Worried his reputation might be irrevocably damaged by the problems he had been asked to deal with, he would spend the next three months desperately searching for a way to cut Britain's military commitment in Iraq. It looks like Des Browne is doing much the same thing - spurred, I suspect, by the chastening mid-term election results in the United States.

In 1921 Britain ran Mesopotamia, as it then was, as a result of its determination to protect its oil fields in southern Persia during the First World War. In a classic example of mission creep, this defence had ended with the British capturing Baghdad in 1917. As more oil was discovered and its importance in powering the Royal Navy was recognised, they were reluctant to give up their new possession. But the post-war administration of the country, which largely excluded local Arabs, was inept. "I regard the situation in Mesopotamia as disquieting, and if we do not mend our ways, will expect revolt there about March next", TE Lawrence wrote in September 1919. Eight weeks later than he predicted, in May 1920 violence erupted in Iraq. Lawrence would become perhaps the most vocal critic of the government in the months that followed, arguing that Britain should stand back and allow the Arabs to run the country for themselves. "What is required", he wrote in an article in the Observer, "is a tearing up of what we have done, and beginning again on advisory lines." His position was a popular one. A further, famous article he wrote for the Sunday Times was supported by a leader in the paper which asked: "Why are we in Mesopotamia? Uninformative statements which have been issued by the Government convey the impression that officialdom is bewildered and anxious rather to conceal its blunders than to mend them. But they can be concealed no longer…"

"We have not got a single friend in the press upon the subject", Churchill wrote about the crisis in Iraq in 1920. He regretted “pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts”. When he was then given the task of tearing up past policy, it was a unpalatable job which has a familiar ring today.

1 comment:

El Despiole said...

This is a very interesting post. You have a Telegraph connection -- offer a piece like this to someone else, if you have not done so already. Someone will use it. I would have.