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The Lessons of Empire

By Michael Elliott

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As Bush considers colonizing Iraq, he ought to look at the last attempt

The photograph below of a fierce-looking group of men cradling antique machine guns comes from an old album in my home. It dates from about 1930, and its caption reads, "Sheik Mahmoud of Kurdistan. Surrendered to Political Officer Victor Holt VC accompanied by F\O M.O."

"Sheik Mahmoud" was Mahmoud Barzanji, chieftain of a famous Kurdish clan, who led a series of revolts against British rule in Iraq after World War I. "F\O M.O." was Royal Air Force Flight Officer Max Oxford, my late father-in-law.

Max had splendid adventures in the service of the British Empire everywhere from central Africa to the South China Sea, but he always had warm memories of his years in Iraq, though this may be because he learned the noble sport of pigsticking there (we've got pictures of that too). I suspect, however, that his affection for Iraq was a rarity. Britain's attempt to rule there was a disaster. At a time when broad-chested conservative believers in American power and dewy-eyed Wilsonian internationalists contemplate a new imperial adventure in Iraq, it's worth recalling what happened the last time.

In the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, London thought that the best way to secure routes to India, the jewel in its imperial crown, was to dominate Mesopotamia. To that end, the treaty at the close of the war cobbled together Iraq from three Ottoman provinces, one Kurdish, one Sunni Muslim and another Shi'ite Muslim. The British moved in under a League of Nations mandate.

They didn't have a clue. In 1920 a full-scale revolt broke out. By one account, Britain lost 450 in the rebellion; other sources put the figure higher. Very quickly the British public, weary of endless war and shocked by reports that the R.A.F. routinely bombed women and children in Kurdish villages, turned against the intervention in Iraq. By the time the British slunk home in the 1930s, Iraq's brush with imperialism seemed over.

Or perhaps not. George Bush's speech to the United Nations last month explicitly cast America's Iraq ambitions in terms much wider than the removal of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Bush contemplated nothing less than a remaking of the Middle East into an area of democracy and economic freedom. The President looked forward to a day when "the people of Iraq" can join a "democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world."

Who could argue with that? Yet there is a problem with Bush's vision: it will have to be imposed from the outside. To be sure, in the past, American imperialist practice has usually been more benign than Britain's. (The R.A.F. bombed Iraqi villages that were late in paying their taxes, which even the Colonial Office in London thought was a bit much.) And America's ostensible motives today are pure (so long as we don't mention oil).

"Liberty for the Iraqi people," said Bush, "is a great moral cause." It doubtless is. But just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so imperialism is in the mind of the imperialized. The motive of imperialists is irrelevant. (France justified its past colonial policies by a "mission to civilize.") What matters is that imperialism means rule by others. In the end, as the old colonial powers came to understand, that breeds resentment and costs both money and young lives.

Today's neoimperialists claim that if the U.S. could rebuild West Germany and Japan after World War II, it can rebuild Iraq. But the cases could hardly be more different. Both West Germany and Japan had fixed national identities; Iraq does not. Both nations--Germany especially--had memories of democratic institutions; Iraq does not. Neither Japan nor Germany had bitter memories of prior attempts to impose colonial rule; Iraq does. Nor has Washington said precisely how Baghdad will be transformed into Omaha-on-the-Tigris.

Bush has signaled that Washington has no intention of doing the job alone; he looks to "the prospect of the U.N. helping to build a government that represents all Iraqis." But there is scant evidence that the Administration is yet thinking about what an international effort to create a new Iraq would entail or how to canvass outside help. A free Iraq in a prosperous Arab world is in everyone's interest, and unseating Saddam would be a good start down that road. It's what follows that's tricky.

The lesson of history is that reforms succeed best if they well up from within a nation, not when they are thrust upon it from outside. If the Administration seriously thinks otherwise, it would be nice to know what lessons it has learned from the failed imperialism of the past. And not just about the finer points of pigsticking.

Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.

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