Skip to comments.Winston's Folly: Imperialism and the Creation of Modern Iraq by Christopher Catherwood
Posted on 12/26/2004 6:49:29 PM PST by lancer
The Eastern Question that haunted the chancelleries of 19th-century Europe has returned to haunt George Bush and Tony Blair; or rather, the consequences of the failure to find a satisfactory answer to it have blighted all attempts to create a new international order in the aftermath of the cold war. This book is required reading for anyone wanting to have an informed opinion on recent events in Iraq; the fact that its author worked for Blair's "Strategic Futures Unit" makes one wonder why the prime minister did not spend more time reading history and less commissioning dodgy dossiers.
There are few places where the ingrained assumption of western superiority survives better than in commentaries on the Ottoman empire. Despite being the greatest Islamic empire the world has known, and in spite of enduring for the better part of a millennium, it has come down to us through its reputation as the "sick man of Europe" and its treatment of the Armenians during the first world war; this is the equivalent of judging the British empire by its treatment of Ireland and the Boer War - something, of course, some commentators would be more than happy to do. The fact that the modern, secular Turkish republic had every interest in traducing its predecessor has meant that, outside the work of Ottoman scholarship, the Ottoman empire remains little understood. Yet for half a millennium, it governed those places that now stand out as some of the main trouble spots of the past decade: Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine and Iraq. It has been easy to imply that somehow the Ottomans were responsible for what has happened in the successor-states, but the fact remains that they provided better governance than has succeeded them.
Even as well informed a writer as Christopher Catherwood casually assumes the inevitability of the demise of the Ottoman empire, although his own narrative makes it plain that it was the mistaken choices made by the regime during the first world war that brought about its downfall. The mistakes made by those charged with replacing it are the central theme of Winston's Folly.
The title is far from a catchpenny attempt to sell books by dragging Churchill's name into things. As colonial secretary in 1921, Churchill was directly responsible for the decisions that led to the creation of modern Iraq, and the process as described here raises yet more doubts about his ultimate legacy; much can be forgiven the man of 1940 - but perhaps much can also be laid on the other account.
Catherwood is an excellent guide at cutting through the mythology that surrounds this subject, although he does not always appreciate the implications of some of his arguments. For example, he correctly points out that most Arabs were loyal to the Ottoman empire during the first world war, and yet still writes as though it was in some way doomed; no empire that commands the loyalty of most of its subjects can be said to be in terminal trouble. Catherwood has little patience with the Lawrence of Arabia-inspired line that there was a "great betrayal" of the Arab cause. Far from Feisal and Hussein (the sons of the Sherif of Mecca) being betrayed, it was they who betrayed the Ottomans, and it was because they had so little support that they needed the backing of the British. Without the efforts of Lawrence and company, who convinced Churchill that the Hashemite dynasty enjoyed great support in Mesopotamia, it would never have come to power in Jordan and Iraq; indeed, without the Hashemites and Churchill's decision to back them, there would have been no modern Iraq at all. The three Ottoman vilayets (provinces) that form modern Iraq were brought together because Churchill decided they should be, and this book explores why that decision was taken.
Much of the story is depressingly familiar to those following more recent events in this part of the world. The early 20th-century liberal equivalent of the Bush-Blair belief in the universal applicability of the western model of democracy was the Wilsonian attachment to the sanctity of the nation state as the best way of organising polities; whether in the Balkan lands of the former Ottoman empire or its Middle Eastern territories, one size could fit all. When it did not quite seem to work, it was necessary to have recourse to force. However, there were two problems with this: in the first place, as Napoleon once remarked, you can do anything with a bayonet - except sit on it; what do you do when the people upon whom you are trying to confer the great boon of a nation state or democracy do not appear to want it? Second, occupation of another country is expensive, financially and morally. Democratic electorates hold their rulers to a higher standard than that expected of autocracies, but it is difficult to run an occupation without deviating from these standards; this exacts a moral price which governments with elections to win are rarely willing to pay. Then there is the financial cost. It is difficult to justify spending a fortune on what looks like an exercise in suppression.
Thus did Churchill, as colonial secretary, inherit the problem of what to do with Mesopotamia. The British had insisted on acquiring the strategically important area under a League of Nations mandate, only to find the natives were extremely restless. Churchill-inspired attempts to bomb the "rebels" into submission having failed, and the moral and financial costs escalating, it was necessary to find a way out of Mesopotamia - at which point the Hashemites became extremely useful. Entirely dependent upon the British, the Hashemite dynasty provided a useful client regime. The fact that this meant placing a predominantly Shia population under minority Sunni rule, and placing the ethnically separate Kurds under Arab rule, mattered little compared to the needs of the British. Catherwood is unsparing in his portrayal of the mixture of incompetence, arrogance and ignorance that Churchill brought to bear on the Iraq question, and is unafraid to imply that things might not have changed all that much.
Judging by recent events in Iraq, it would seem as though there are good grounds for thinking that Blair has indeed refused to learn from history. Those who do this are, it is often said, doomed to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. With the Americans busy appeasing the Saudis as Churchill did, and Bush and Blair as committed to the continuation of the artificial creation of Iraq, it is difficult to see what Catherwood's time in the "Strategic Futures Team" achieved. It looks as though Marx was wrong when he wrote that history repeats itself as farce; tragedy would be nearer the mark, as "Winston's folly" is compounded by that of George W and Tony.
· John Charmley is professor of modern history at the University of East Anglia.
Iraq is but one of the problems created by the Colonial Powers in the wake of the two WW's. Virtually all of the current day trouble spots have their origins in the hubris of these individuals who felt competent to redraw boundaries according to their biased, ignorant view of the world. India/Pakistan, Indonesia, Indo-China, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, The Balkans and a number of other politically defined regions are testament to this approach and the results have and continue to come home to roost.
I suppose it depends what you mean by a successful empire. The Ottoman Turks destroyed the Eastern Roman empire, and nearly conquered Vienna. They prevailed, IMHO, mainly by sheer ruthlessness. It was commonplace at many times for the Sultan to kill off all the other males in his family to prevent succession disputes. Slavery was widely practiced. Neighboring Christians were raided, killed, and enslaved. And so forth.
Sure, a Muslim ruler can keep Muslims in line by severely oppressing them and killing those who offend him. But then you're stuck with a bunch of Muslims eager to conquer everyone else and add to their Muslim-controlled world.
Maybe the editors of The Guardian would like to live in a Muslim world, but I doubt that many Americans would. So we need to find an alternative to a Turkish Sultan. After all, that seems to be the only solution this article has to suggest. They don't exactly say it, but what else does their article imply?
Turning "Iraq" into a modern state is a fool's errand.
We need bases there for the suppression of Saudi Arabia, and we should take the oil, but the rest of it should be left to rot.
I remember reading some posts about this and the conclusion was this is not true. If you have any further information on it, please post it.
as Napoleon once remarked, you can do anything with a bayonet - except sit on it
I believe it was Talleyrand who said this.
Apparently the Guardian thinks multiculturalism is bad when it forces Sunni, Shia, and Kurd to live together, unless they live in Britain.
Thanks. I saw that article earlier today (yesterday now) and it was what made me go looking for something about Catherwood. That's how I found the review I posted. But I still have no idea where he is coming from.
From the arcives of the NYTs: I have also written to several newspersons to get their source for the information. But the NYTs and LIFE both ran stories ofthis.
GERMANS REVEAL HATE OF AMERICANS; Drop Mask of Surface Amity-- G-2 Reports Ignore End of People's 'Apathy'
By DREW MIDDLETON By Wireless to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Oct 31, 1945. pg. 12, 1 pgs