‘Liberating’ the Mideast:
Why Do We Never Learn?
by Robert Fisk
March 10, 2003
On March 8, 1917, Lt. Gen. Stanley Maude issued a “Proclamation to the People of the Wilayat of Baghdad”. Maude’s Anglo-Indian Army of the Tigres had invaded and occupied Iraq — after storming up the country from Basra — to “free” its people from their dictators. “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators,” the British announced.
“People of Baghdad, remember for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions.
“This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her Allies for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity or misgovernment.”
Gen. Maude, of course, was the Gen. Tommy Franks of his day, and his proclamation — so rich in irony now that President George Bush is uttering equally mendacious sentiments — was intended to persuade Iraqis that they should accept foreign occupation while Britain secured the country’s oil.
Gen. Maude’s chief political officer, Sir Percy Cox, called on Iraq’s Arab leaders, who were not identified, to participate in the government in collaboration with the British authorities and spoke of liberation, freedom, past glories, future greatness and — here the ironies come in spades — it expressed the hope that the people of Iraq would find unity.
The British commander cabled to London that “local conditions do not permit of employing in responsible positions any but British officers competent... to deal with people of the country. Before any truly Arab facade (sic) can be applied to edifice, it seems essential that foundation of law and order should be well and truly laid.” As David Fromkin noted in his magisterial A Peace to End all Peace — essential reading for America’s future army of occupation — the antipathy of the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority of Iraq, the rivalries of tribes and clans “made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective and widely supported”. Whitehall failed, as Fromkin caustically notes, “to think through in practical detail how to fulfill the promises gratuitously made to a section of the local inhabitants”. There was even a problem with the Kurds, since the British could not make up their mind as to whether they should be absorbed into the new state of Iraq or allowed to form an independent Kurdistan. The French were originally to have been awarded Mosul in northern Iraq but gave up their claim in return for — again, ironies — a major share in the new Turkish Petroleum Company, confiscated by the British and recreated as the Iraq Petroleum Company.
How many times has the West marched into the Middle East in so brazen a fashion? Gen. Sir Edward Allenby “liberated” Palestine only a few months after Gen. Maude “liberated” Iraq. The French turned up to “liberate” Lebanon and Syria a couple of years later, slaughtering the Syrian forces loyal to King Faisal who dared to suggest that French occupation was not the future they wanted.
What is it, I sometimes wonder, about our constant failure to learn the lessons of history, to repeat — almost word for word in the case of Gen. Maude’s proclamation — the same gratuitous promises and lies? A copy of Gen. Maude’s original proclamation went under the hammer at a British auction at Swindon last week, but I’ll wager more than the 1,400 pounds sterling it made that America’s forthcoming proclamation to the “liberated” people of Iraq reads almost exactly the same.
Take a look at Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations — on which Bush claims to be such an expert — that allowed the British and French to divide those territories they had just “liberated” from Ottoman dictators. “To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the states which formerly governed them, and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves... there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization... the best method is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who, by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position, can best undertake this responsibility...” What is it about “liberation” in the Middle East? What is this sacred trust — a ghost of the same “trusteeship” the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, now promotes for Iraq’s oil — that the West constantly wishes to visit upon the Middle East? Why do we so frequently want to govern these peoples, these “tribes with flags” as Sir Steven Runciman, that great historian of the 11th- and 12th-century Crusades, once called them? Indeed, Pope Urban’s call for the first Crusade in 1095, reported at the time by at least three chroniclers, would find a resonance even among the Christian fundamentalists who, along with Israel’s supporters, are now so keen for the United States to invade Iraq.
Urban told his listeners the Turks were maltreating the inhabitants of Christian lands — an echo here of the human rights abuses which supposedly upset Bush — and described the suffering of pilgrims, urging the Christian West’s formerly fratricidal antagonists to fight a “righteous” war. His conflict, of course, was intended to “liberate” Christians rather than Muslims who, along with the Jews, the Crusaders slaughtered as soon as they arrived in the Middle East.
This notion of “liberation” in the Middle East has almost always been accompanied by another theme: The necessity of overthrowing tyrants.
The Crusaders were as meticulous about their invasions as the US Central Command at Tampa, Florida, is today.
Marino Sanudo, born in Venice around 1260, describes how the Western armies chose to put their forces ashore in Egypt with a first disembarkation of 15,000 infantrymen along with 300 cavalry (the latter being the Crusader version of an armoured unit). In Beirut, I even have copies of the West’s 13th-century invasion maps. Napoleon produced a few of his own in 1798 when he invaded Egypt after 20 years of allegedly irresponsible and tyrannical rule by Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey. Claude Etienne Savary, the French equivalent of all those Washington pundits who groan today over the suffering of the Iraqi people under President Saddam, wrote in 1775 that in Cairo under Murad Bey “death may prove the consequence of the slightest indiscretion”. Under the Beys, the city “groans under their yoke”. Which is pretty much how we now picture Baghdad and Basra under President Saddam.
In fact, President Saddam’s promises to destroy America’s invasion force have a remarkable echo in the exclamation of one of the 18th-century Mameluke princes in Egypt, who, told of a looming French invasion, responded with eerily familiar words: “Let the Franks come. We shall crush them beneath our horses’ hooves.”
Napoleon, of course, did all the crushing, and his first proclamation (he, too, was coming to “liberate” the people of Egypt from their oppressors) included an appeal to Egyptian notables to help him run the government. “O shayks, ‘qadis’, imams, and officers of the town, tell your nation that the French are friends of true Muslims... Blessed are those Egyptians who agree with us.” Napoleon went on to set up an “administrative council” in Egypt, very like the one which the Bush administration says it intends to operate under US occupation. And in due course the “shayks” and “qadis” and imams rose up against French occupation in Cairo in 1798.
If Napoleon entered upon his rule in Egypt as a French revolutionary, Gen. Allenby, when he entered Jerusalem in December 1917, had provided David Lloyd George with the city he wanted as a Christmas present. Its liberation, the British prime minister later noted with almost Crusader zeal, meant that Christendom had been able “to regain possession of its sacred shrines”. He talked about “the calling of the Turkish bluff” as “the beginning of the crack-up of that military impostorship which the incompetence of our war direction had permitted to intimidate us for years”, shades, here, of the American regret that it never took the 1991 Gulf War to Baghdad; Lloyd George was “finishing the job” of overcoming Ottoman power just as George Bush Junior now intends to “finish the job” started by his father.
And always, without exception, there were those tyrants and dictators to overthrow in the Middle East. In World War II, we “liberated” Iraq a second time from its pro-Nazi administration. The British “liberated” Lebanon from Vichy rule with a promise of independence from France, a promise which Charles de Gaulle tried to renege on until the British almost went to war with the Free French in Syria.
Lebanon has suffered an awful lot of “liberations”. The Israelis — for Arabs, an American, “Western” implantation in the Middle East — claimed twice to be anxious to “liberate” Lebanon from PLO “terrorism” by invading in 1978 and 1982, and leaving in humiliation only two years ago. America’s own military intervention in Beirut in 1982 was blown apart by a truck-bomb at the US Marine headquarters the following year. And what did President Ronald Reagan tell the world? “Lebanon is central to our credibility on a global scale. We cannot pick and choose where we will support freedom... If Lebanon ends up under the tyranny of forces hostile to the West, not only will our strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean be threatened, but also the stability of the entire Middle East, including the vast resources of the Arabian Peninsula.” Once more, we, the West, were going to protect the Middle East from tyranny. Anthony Eden took the same view of Egypt, anxious to topple the “dictator” Gamal Abdul Nasser, just as Napoleon had been desperate to rescue the Egyptians from the tyranny of the Beys, just as Gen. Maude wanted to rescue Iraq from the tyranny of the Turks, just as George Bush Junior now wants to rescue the Iraqis from the tyranny of President Saddam.
And always, Western invasions were accompanied by declarations that the Americans or the French or just the West in general had nothing against the Arabs, only against the beast-figure who was chosen as the target of our military action.
So what happened to all these fine words? The Crusades were a catastrophe for Christian-Muslim relations. Napoleon left Egypt in humiliation. Britain dropped gas on the recalcitrant Kurds of Iraq before discovering Iraq was ungovernable. Arabs, then Jews, drove the British from Palestine and Jerusalem. The French fought years of insurrection in Syria. In Lebanon, the Americans scuttled away in 1984, along with the French.
And in Iraq in the coming months? What will be the price of our folly this time, of our failure to learn the lessons of history? Only after the United States has completed its occupation we shall find out. It is when the Iraqis demand an end to that occupation, when popular resistance to the American presence by the Shiites and the Kurds and even the Sunnis begins to destroy the military “success” which President Bush will no doubt proclaim when the first US troops enter Baghdad. It is then our real “story” as journalists will begin.
It is then that all the empty words of colonial history, the need to topple tyrants and dictators, to assuage the suffering of the people of the Middle East, to claim that we and we only are the best friends of the Arabs, that we and we only must help them, will unravel.
Here I will make a guess: In the months and years that follow the invasion of Iraq, the US, in its arrogant assumption that it can create “democracy” in the ashes of a Middle East dictatorship as well as take its oil, will suffer the same as the British in Palestine. Of this tragedy, Winston Churchill wrote, and his words are likely to apply to the US in Iraq: “At first, the steps were wide and shallow, covered with a carpet, but in the end the very stones crumbled under their feet.”
Robert Fisk is an award winning foreign correspondent for The Independent (UK), where this article first appeared. He is the author of Pity Thy Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (The Nation Books, 2002 edition)