Following Churchill’s Folly In Iraq

Don Chapman
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August 22, 2007
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“When Iraq becomes strong enough in our opinion to stand alone, we shall be in a position to state that our task has been fulfilled, and that Iraq is an independent sovereign state. But this cannot be said while we are forced year after year to spend very large sums of money on helping the Iraqi government to defend itself and maintain order.”

Sound familiar? Perhaps like something you’ve heard from a stay-the-course advocate, circa 2004-7?

A map of the Middle East before the '40 Thieves' drew up national boundaries, from Churchill's Folly
A map of the Middle East before the ‘40 Thieves’ drew up national boundaries, from Churchill’s Folly

Nope, it’s Winston Churchill, writing in 1922 as head of Britain’s Colonial Office. At the time, Prince Feisal - whom Churchill had appointed king of the nascent nation of Iraq, whose borders Churchill had drawn up the previous year - was balking at the protectorate agreement the British wanted. To rule a land and people with whom he was largely unfamiliar, Feisal, a native of the Arabian Peninsula and not the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, and who had spent much of his life in Turkish Constantinople, needed legitimacy - and as much independence from the British as he could get.

Which is much the same problem that the American-supported government and army of Iraq are having today.

That, and the above quote, are just two among endless parallels between the British experience in Iraq and the American experience 80-plus years later - as reported in Churchill’s Folly, by historian Christopher Catherwood (2004, Carroll & Graf). It wasn’t written yet when the Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003, but the information was there for the learning if anyone in the White House had cared to pursue it. E-mail subject: Things To Avoid in Iraq! For this book, Catherwood relies heavily on the archived letters and memos written by the remarkably prolific Churchill.


Abrief bit of background that is necessary to understand the current situation: The Ottoman Empire based in modern-day Turkey ruled from 1299 until 1920, at its peak controlling three continents. Already with their empire in decline, the Ottomans sided with Germany in World War I, and in its defeated aftermath saw remnants of the empire subdivided, with Western nations given “mandates” by the League of Nations to govern various areas. The United States was given present-day Armenia, but the isolationist administration of President Woodrow Wilson - the U.S. was not even a member of the League of Nations - chose not to get involved. The French got what today is Syria and Lebanon, and the Brits got what is now Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, among other real estate. A map of the region before Churchill convened what he called his “40 Thieves” in Cairo in April 1921 to draw up new national boundaries shows not countries, but tribal areas - the Ibn Saud clan ruling the Nejd on the Arabian Peninsula and the rival Hussein clan ruling the neighboring Hejaz along the Red Sea, to name the largest two. They often skirmished, and the Sauds also had their eyes on what would become Kuwait.

Note: The Husseins, also known as Hashemites and unrelated to Saddam, are descended from the prophet Mohammed and held the position of Sharif of Mecca. They are key characters in the film Lawrence of Arabia and the book about the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans on which it is based, Seven Pillars of Wisdom - although Catherwood says the historical details of both are quite wrong and based largely on the fantasies of T.E. Lawrence. Nevertheless, Churchill dragged the old desert soldier out of retirement, and Lawrence became one of those “40 Thieves,” and much responsible for Churchill agreeing to put Hussein’s son Feisal on the new Iraqi throne (after he tried usurping the new throne in Syria until the French kicked him out). Feisal’s brother Abdullah would become king of the new country of Jordan.

Call it arrogance, perhaps: Churchill had never actually visited what was then called Mesopotamia when he arbitrarily drew up the borders for a new land called Iraq, doing so in Egypt, although he did visit Jerusalem.

And while Catherwood writes that Churchill was well aware of Sunni-Shia differences in the region, he ignored them as well as tribal boundaries. Thus Churchill, the classic colonialist, brought a Sunni from outside Iraq to rule a country that was two-thirds Shia.

As for the Kurds in the north, they were Sunni but not Arabic. The “40 Thieves” discussed creating a separate Kurdish nation, but failed to do so - Kurdish homelands were split between Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria - to the continuing detriment of the Kurdish people.

In short: Three nations - for Shia, Sunni and Kurds - could have been created at a time when Arab nationalism was rising, and such an idea might have been popular. Or the Brits could have simply let those tribal lands revert to their traditional ways. But that is not the way of empires, and today the Iraqis - and Americans - are paying for it.

Oil was not yet an issue for the Brits - Iraqi oil was still just speculation in 1922 - but they had their own economic self-interest here. As Colonial secretary, Churchill was interested in Iraq because it would save several days in the time it took to send troops and goods from England to India, then the UK’s prize colony. And Churchill, Catherwood shows again and again, was chiefly interested in saving the British Empire money - call it empire on the cheap.

Thus it was that troop levels were always an issue, with British generals saying that far more troops were necessary to stabilize Iraq than Churchill and politicians in London wanted to hear. Ask retired Gen. Eric Shinseki if that sounds familiar.


Feisal would turn out to be a terrible choice for reasons greater than his religion. He was simply not a good ruler, his administration disorganized at best. That said, as Catherwood points out, the British presence that lasted until 1932 never allowed Feisal any true legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people. Who’s in charge here? He died in 1933, succeeded by the young playboy King Ghazi.

Churchill’s formula created inherent instability in Iraq - in the nation’s first 37 years, there were 58 different governments! The bloody Baathist overthrow of 1958 ended the Hashemite monarchy, and especially after Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979 would show that only an iron-fisted dictator could hold a country of such disparate parts together.

So what might this history mean for America and Iraq?

The greatest problem, it seems to me, is that Iraq was never a nation of ideals, or dreams, or unified core beliefs or ethnicity. Today, Catherwood points out, the people of Iraq still identify themselves more by tribal and religious affiliation than as patriotic Iraqis. They may cheer the Iraqi soccer team, because they love soccer and it’s the only team they have, but they don’t get all chickenskin when they hear their national anthem.

And the concept of democracy does not resonate; they are content with a system that offers security, and a religion that provides answers for life’s vagaries.

It seems unlikely to the point of impossibility that the Shia majority, dominated by a Sunni minority going back to the Ottomans and then by a Western-appointed monarchy followed by a military dictatorship, will ever give up the dominance they now and newly enjoy. Share power? Ha!

It seems equally unlikely that the long-dominant Sunnis would allow themselves to become a persecuted minority, or that the Kurds of Iraq, with a strong regional government now in place and lots of oil underfoot, would be willing to be dominated by Arabs of either Muslim stripe. And why share?

And it seems there is no essential reason for these very different people to find a unifying cause other than oil profits. But that would involve sharing, and that’s a problem.

Whether it was the British in 1921 or Americans today, Western powers have dictated what Iraq is and what Iraqi policy should be. The stated Bush agenda to establish democracy in Iraq is a lovely idea, but so is money growing on trees. For Iraqis, democracy is not a golden ideal, but just another Western concept being forced upon them by violent means.

Even if some kind of democracy prevails in Iraq, says Catherwood, expect it to act rather as Feisal did with the Brits who put him in power: ungrateful. There was never a pro-British government under the Hashemite monarchy, and there is not likely to be a pro-American government that follows our exit.

Whether U.S. troops leave Iraq tomorrow or next year or even beyond that, it’s highly unlikely that ancient tribal and religious identities will be superseded by national pride.

As Catherwood points out, whether it was artificially configured Yugoslavia or the French creation of Lebanon, nations drawn up by outside forces are never successful for very long. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the bloody chaos it set loose seems to bear out that historical verity.

Yes, Iraqi oil is our economic self-interest, and a very serious one, but this should give Americans even more reason to find other ways to power our cars, homes and businesses, and our nation.

Bottom line: I can’t see any way that America can get out of Iraq without the serious involvement and cooperation of the Arabic Sunni Saudis, the Persian Shia Iranians and the Sunni Turks - a treaty between those traditional regional rivals allowing Sunni, Shia and Kurdish home-lands in the former Iraq would be a good start, and would provide a sort of buffer among those powers.

And I can’t see a way out of Iraq without finally letting the people of the region redraw their own borders. They’ve been subject to outside dominance since 1299 - a mere 708 years. They could hardly do any worse than Western meddlers have done.

Will there be bloodshed as they sort it out? To answer with a double question: Is there unconscionable bloodshed happening in Iraq now? And how else do you propose to stop it?

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Most Recent Comment(s):

great column, with a terrific opening quote… Mahalo.
Richard Rodrigues

Stellar piece of journalism!


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