Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"Why Do They Hate Us?:" A Discussion of Western Imperial Wars Against the Iraqi People

The Media, with its often extensive coverage of the Iraq War, has failed miserably in its duty to help the American people understand the war in which we are currently involved. Many Americans do not even realize the manner in which the Iraqi state was created in 1919. Below, I have chronicled the brief history of the British invasion of Mesopotamia in 1914, the creation of the Iraqi state in 1919, and the Anglo-American invasion in 2003, outlining the strategic goals of the invading western powers and the consequences for the Iraqi people. (Please note, the article will be broken into 2 sections, part 1 pertaining to the 1914 British invasion and creation of the Iraqi state, part 2 dealing with the 2003 Anglo-American invasion).

Part 1: 1914

The region of Mesopotamia, lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in1534 and remained under Ottoman administration until the collapse of the Empire following the First World War. Under Ottoman rule, Mesopotamia was divided into three separate vilayets, or provinces, with Baghdad at the center, Mosul to the north and Basra to the south. The Ottoman Empire had been in a state of perpetual decline, relative to Europe, since the beginning of the 18th century. In 1856 the Ottoman Empire was admitted into the “Concert of Europe,” thus assuring its integrity, however with the outbreak of war in 1914, the Concert dissolved into hostile camps and Ottoman leaders were forced to choose a side.[i] When the Ottoman Empire chose to ally with the Central Powers, British, French and Russian statesmen immediately set their sights on various prizes which they hoped to acquire by right of conquest. While Russian and French interests in the region were more pronounced, Russia seeking access to the Turkish straits and Palestine, and France claiming “historic rights” to modern day Syria and Lebanon, British interests were more broad, concerned primarily with maintaining control of the vital Suez canal, protecting communications to India and ensuring post-war security for British investment and trade in the region.[ii] British interests in the region, however, would continue to evolve as the war progressed.
Throughout the war, British and French planners were engulfed in fierce diplomatic maneuvering to determine where each state would be allowed to extend its imperial influence, however with the French armies bogged down on the Western Front defending their homeland, the British were able to devote far more forces to the Middle Eastern Theatre. British statesmen, faced with great uncertainty and a very real possibility of defeat, repeatedly made cheap and often conflicting promises. In 1915 Hussein bin’ Ali agreed to launch an uprising against the Turks in exchange for a British promise to support the founding of an independent Arab kingdom (Hussein-McMahon Correspondence 1915-16). The British then proceeded to sign a contradictory agreement with the French in January 1916, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the former Ottoman territories between the respective powers, in blatant disregard of the agreement with Hussein. According to Sykes-Picot, Mesopotamia would be divided with the provinces of Basra and Baghdad coming under direct British control and Mosul being incorporated into a French sphere of influence.[iii] The plan was approved by the respective governments in May 1916, thus solidifying British ambitions in Mesopotamia.
No sooner had the British signed on to Sykes-Picot than they began to regret it. Lloyd George, a “Liberal turned land-grabber,” in the words of historian Margaret MacMillan, took power in Great Britain in December 1916.[iv] Over the next year, British forces consolidated power throughout the former empire and by April 1918 troops under the command of Arnold Wilson had complete control over Mesopotamia. Following the conclusion of hostilities, the British, in the fall of 1918, informed France that Sykes-Picot would have to be revised and that they alone would negotiate the armistice with the Turks. The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, who maintained a relative indifference toward colonial affairs, was nevertheless infuriated, although he knew that the situation on the ground (with 500,000 British forces in the Middle East) left the French with little room to negotiate. Clemenceau agreed to a meeting with Lloyd George in December 1918, shortly before the Paris Peace Conference, and while no official record of their meeting exists, it is known that Clemenceau forfeited French claims to Mosul (which Britain had since come to covet), likely in exchange for British support of French interests along the Rhine.[v]
Entering the Paris Peace Conference, Great Britain had secured French acquiescence to their controlling the whole of Mesopotamia, yet three powerful obstacles remained. The first was anti-imperialist rhetoric, articulated by Vladmir Lenin and the newly empowered Bolsheviks in Russia and trumpeted by British socialists, as well as Woodrow Wilson and his calls for the right of peoples to “self determination.” The second was Hussein bin Ali’s son Feisal, who had led the Arab revolt, and was now calling on the British to make good on their promises to support Arab independence. The third problem facing British planners was the effect of self determination rhetoric, which had inspired nationalist uprisings throughout the British Empire, particularly in Egypt, India and the newly acquired territories of Mesopotamia.
Thus, British policy objectives in Mesopotamia following the war included a military suppression of nationalist revolts; a diplomatic settlement with the French over territorial acquisitions and with the Americans regarding self determination; and the establishment of an effective and cost efficient means of political control in Mesopotamia. Having settled the issue of Mosul with Clemenceau in December, the British appeased American calls for self determination by establishing the mandates system under Article 22 of the League of Nations Charter, which stated that they (the mandatory powers) were responsible for “the rendering of assistance…until such a time as they [the mandated people] are able to stand alone.”[vi] Thus, the British, through “the rendering of assistance,” could practice imperial control as they saw fit. Next, the British needed to find a military solution to the crises in Mesopotamia, where a people’s Congress had demanded independence from British rule and an end to the occupation.[vii] The British military response was harsh as expeditions burned villages and extracted fines, while the air-force set a new precedent in colonial domination by firing machine-guns and dropping bombs from the air.[viii] Once order had been restored a senior official in the Indian office articulated British political aims for the region:

What we want is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves; something that won’t cost very much, which Labour can swallow consistent with its principles, but under which our economic and political interests will be secure.[ix]

Regarding how well the British achieved their objectives following the creation of Iraq “the well-rooted country,” one must conclude that the new imperial possession was a relative success. Mosul provided the British with immense oil resources, Basra offered an outlet to the Persian Gulf and Baghdad, irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates, provided rich, fertile farmland.[x] Furthermore, since mandatory powers could not apply tariffs, Britain maintained a colonial-era system of trade with the region, buying raw materials and agricultural products while dumping finished goods on the unprotected markets.[xi] Finally, the British crowned Feisal, a Sunni, as the king of the newly created country. Since his legitimacy was largely undermined by his rise to political power, he and his successors were forced to rely on British assistance, or risk being overthrown by the majority Shiite populace. These perks came in addition to the original (1914) goals of protecting the Suez Canal and insuring communications to India.
While combining the three former Ottoman provinces into a single administrative unit under effective British control made sense from a British imperial perspective, it did not bode well for the “Iraqi” people, for whom religion, geography and ethnicity proved divisive rather than unifying factors. As historian Margaret MacMillan points out, the creation of the Iraqi state was, in European terms, “like hoping to have Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs make one country.”[xii] Indeed, while half of the newly created country was ethnically Arab, many of the inhabitants were Persian, Assyrian or Kurdish, the latter of which had expected an independent Kurdistan following the war.[xiii] Furthermore, the populations remained divided along religious lines as the Shiite Muslims (roughly 50-percent) and Jews and Christians (roughly 25-percent together) came to be dominated by Sunni Muslims (roughly 25-percent), who were widely regarded as agents of British oppression. Consequently, Iraq became notorious for political instability and, following a massacre of Christian Assyrians in 1933, notorious for dealing with political instability through repression and violence.[xiv] Furthermore, since Iraqi industrial development was diminished by the colonial-style trade agreements, it failed to industrialize until well after WWII.[xv] While I would argue that the dissolution of the Iraqi state along ethnic and sectarian lines was not inevitable, it was made vastly more probable by the British planners and their blatant disregard for the interests of the Iraqi people as they crafted the state to serve their own imperial agenda.
[i] James L Gelvin. The Modern Middle East: A History. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 175.
[ii] Gelvin, 177
[iii] C.M. Andrew and A.S. Kanya-Forstner. “The French Colonial Party and French Colonial War Aims, 1914-1918” The Historical Journal: Vol. 17, No. 1. (1974) (accessed, February 11, 2007), 85.
[iv] Margaret MacMillan. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. ( New York, NY: Random House, 2003), 382.
[v] MacMillan, 382
[vi] Gelvin, 180
[vii] MacMillan, 407
[viii] MacMillan, 408
[ix] MacMillan, 398
[x] Gelvin, 182
[xi] Gelvin, 184
[xii] MacMillan, 397
[xiii] MacMillan, 398
[xiv] Gelvin, 184
[xv] Gelvin, 184

Part 2: 2003

On 22 March, 2003, two days after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, American President George W. Bush articulated the objectives for the invasion in his weekly radio address, stating “our mission is clear, to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.”[i] To date, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction or links to al-Qaeda have been found and most competent observers argue that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence in order to make the case for war.[ii] Indeed, according to Richard Clark, former Chief Counter-Terrorism Advisor of the National Security Council for the Bush Administration, the day after the 11 September attacks Bush ordered the counterterrorism team to look for a connection to Iraq:

“See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.” “But, Mr. President, al-Qaeda did this,” Clark replied, to which Bush countered “I know, I know, but…see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.”[iii]

If we conclude then, that the Bush Administration’s primary purpose for invading Iraq was not to find weapons of mass destruction, end ties with terrorism or “free the Iraqi people,” (this latter assertion proves almost humorous in light of previous US actions),[iv] we must ask: what were the true underlying motivations that led to the 2003 invasion? This is a very difficult question indeed; Richard Haass, the Director of Policy Planning for the State Department during the invasion has said that he will go to his grave without knowing the answer.[v] Personally, I feel that in order to gain an understanding of the military, diplomatic and political objectives for Iraq, one must look to several documents produced throughout the 1990s regarding American policy, both toward Iraq specifically, and the world more broadly. The documents which I will examine came into circulation during the Clinton Administration from within the Pentagon, as well as various “neoconservative” think tanks. Examining these documents, their authors, and the positions they came to hold within the Bush Administration will shed some light on why the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq in March, 2003.
If I may briefly contextualize US policy toward the Middle East, one should note that between the conclusion of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, US interests in the Middle East focused on three main issues: securing access to the valuable oil reserves in the Gulf region; providing for the security of Israel which has been the most strategic US ally since the Truman Administration; and blocking the Soviet Union from extending hegemony into the region.[vi] With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, however, US policy makers were able to dramatically shift their priorities in both the Middle East and throughout the world.
In March 1992 the Pentagon drafted the biannual Defense Policy Guidance Paper, the first since the end of the Cold War. The document, drafted by the Pentagon’s Undersecretary for Policy, Paul D. Wolfowitz in consultation with Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, was leaked to the press and the contents were published in the New York Times article by Patrick E. Tyler (March 8, 1992) entitled “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop.” The document placed a “strong emphasis” on “using military force, if necessary, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other such weapons” in countries such as Iraq and North Korea.[vii] The paper also disregarded collective action through the United Nations, arguing that “the United States should be postured to act independently when collective actions can not be orchestrated.”[viii] The document went on to give a list of possible scenarios for future foreign conflicts, naming Iraq specifically.
The second Clinton era document pertinent to this discussion, entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” came out of The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, a Jerusalem based think tank, and was drafted by a host of neoconservative thinkers including Douglas Feith and the study group’s leader Richard Pearle. The report was prepared in 1996 for the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, but focused on a partnership between the United States and Israel in the creation of a “new Middle East.”[ix] While the document centered on curtailing Iranian and Syrian influence in the region, the first step toward this end was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to be replaced by a more complicit leader, possibly from the Hashemite family in Jordan.[x]
The third Clinton era document relevant to this discussion came in the form of a letter to President Clinton (26 January 1998) from the Project for the New American Century, a Washington based think tank, to articulate their position on US policy toward Iraq. After arguing that the current policy toward Iraq was not working, they wrote that a new strategy “should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.”[xi] Furthermore, they maintained that the present course of action left American troops, regional allies such as Israel and “a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil” in danger.[xii] “We believe,” they continued:

[that] the U.S. has the authority under existing UN resolutions to take the necessary steps, including military steps, to protect our vital interests in the Gulf. In any case, American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council.[xiii]

The letter’s signatories included John Bolton, Richard Pearle, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, among others.
Historians of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq might well choose to ignore these documents, however considering the positions the authors would come to hold in the Bush Administration, such a decision would be ill-advised (please note their respective positions in the footnote).[xiv] Therefore, based on these documents, we can broadly outline the policy objectives that the Bush Administration hoped to achieve by invading Iraq. Militarily, the United States hoped to use the war as a pretext to vastly increase troop presence in the heart of the strategic Gulf region. Diplomatically, the United States sought to test the international response to the newly articulated policy of preemption and to downplay the effectiveness of collective action through the UN. Politically, the United States hoped to curtail attempts by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah to increase their influence in the region, while creating a political ally in Iraq to help work toward this end. The British, for their part, had seen their influence in the region diminish following the Second World War and they now assume the role of junior partner to the United States. Therefore, British interests under Tony Blair essentially aligned with those of Washington.
Regarding whether or not the Anglo-American invaders accomplished their objectives, it is difficult to say, as the occupation and pacification are not yet complete, however the situation in Iraq has become increasingly chaotic and as of February 2007 more than 130 British troops and 3,100 US troops have been killed. The death tolls, combined with an estimated cost of more than $360-billion, have created a situation where the war, as well as President Bush and Prime Minister Blaire, have become immensely unpopular at home and even more so abroad. Iraq, “the Petri dish in which [the] experiment in preemptive policy grew,” has become so unpopular that the international public’s support for the war, which scarcely reached 10-percent anywhere outside the US before the invasion, has plummeted dramatically according to international opinion polls.[xv] If anything, the war has harmed the United States and Britain politically and diplomatically, while empowering Iran and Syria. Militarily, the United States has found “the immediate justification…for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf,”[xvi] yet so long as they are bogged down in the escalating chaos of Iraq it is unlikely that they will be able to consolidate power in the region.
As bleak as the situation in Iraq may be for the Anglo-American invaders, it appears far more dismal for the abject Iraqi people. Although the study has come under criticism from Washington, I have found The Lancet study, released on 11 October 2006, to be the best measure of excess Iraqi deaths since the 2003 invasion. The study estimates that 654,965 excess Iraqi deaths have occurred as a result of the invasion.[xvii] These figures are staggering, especially when one considers the population of Iraq is less than 27-million people. Accordingly, the per-capita death rate in Iraq is far greater than the per-capita death rate in the United States would be if the equivalent of the September 11th attack had happened once per week, every week, since March 2003.
While the Anglo-Americans attempt to blame the Iraqi people for the outbreak of sectarian violence, they forget that it was the British who drew the Iraqi borders in 1919, creating a state with populations largely divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. They also forget that it was the Americans who supported Saddam Hussein through much of his reign, and provided the “dual use agents,” (chemical weapons) which he repeatedly utilized to subdue his recalcitrant populace. Whatever the military, diplomatic and political goals of the Anglo-Americans may have been, morally, the respective governments should do all that they can to support a stable and peaceful regime in Iraq (irrespective of Western policy interests) and provide long-term reparations in an attempt to ameliorate the decades of suffering caused by British and American imperial policies.

[i] George W. Bush. “President Discusses Beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom: President’s Radio Address.” Office of the Press Secretary. (March 22, 2003), (accessed February 18, 2007).
[ii] For example, in a television interview Condoleezza Rice asserted that a shipment of aluminum tubes were being used as centrifuges for enriching uranium, though the experts in the Department of Energy severely doubted the plausibility. Furthermore, documents recording the sale of uranium from Niger were repeatedly cited by administration officials, though they had long been disproved as fraudulent. See also: Downing Street Memo.
[iii] George Packer, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 40.
[iv] For example US sanctions led to the deaths of approximately 500,000 Iraqi children throughout the 1990s.
[v] Packer, 46
[vi] David W. Lesch, ed., The United States and the Middle East: A Historical and Political Reassessment, 3d ed., New U.S. Policies for a new Middle East?, by William Quandt (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003), 460.
[vii] Patrick E. Tyler, “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls For Insuring No Rivals Develop: A One-Superpower World,” New York Times, 8 March 1992, p. 1, 14 -Column 1.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Richard Pearle and others, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm (Jerusalem; Washington D.C.: The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies’ “Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000,” 1996).
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Elliott Abrams and others, to The Honorable William J. Clinton, President of the United States, 26 January 1998, Project for the New American Century, Washington D.C. (accessed 17 February, 2007).
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Richard Cheney who oversaw the drafting of the Defense Policy Guidance Paper was selected as Vice President under George W. Bush; Paul Wolfowitz who drafted the Defense Policy Guidance Paper and signed the letter to Clinton became the Deputy Secretary of Defense; Richard Pearle who helped draft the “Clean Break” paper and signed the letter to Clinton became the Chairman of the Defense Policy Board; Douglass Feith who helped draft the “Clean Break” paper ran the Office of Special Planning within the Pentagon which gathered much of the faulty intelligence that justified the invasion of Iraq; Donald Rumsfeld, who signed the letter to Clinton, was selected as Secretary of Defense; and John Bolton, who signed the letter to Clinton, became the US Ambassador to the United Nations.
[xv] Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003), 4, 21.
[xvi] Thomas Donnelly and others, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century (Washington D.C.: Project for the New American Century, September 2000), 14.
[xvii] Gilbert Burnham and others, Mortality After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey (Oxford: The Lancet, October 11 2006), (accessed February 16, 2007) 1.


Blogger JustMeriMaat said...

I found your post to be very interesting. I have come to the same conclusions, but I have not been able to articulate my ideas as well as you have (in part, because I fail to do the actual research required to back up my opinions).

Imperialism has had similar consequences in Africa as well. But, African nations do not seem to have the same magnetic pull for neo-imperialists that Middle Eastern ones do. Why do you think that is? I don't think it can just be about oil. Maybe also because African nations, in general, do not seem to pose the same threat to the US and England as Middle Eastern ones do.

Do you have any predictions for Iraq? Is the whole US invasion going to flop? Is Iraq going to continue to be a pawn for US interests? Is Iraq going to split up into different countries? Is Iraq going to "come of age" and get itself out from under neo-imperialism? Is Iran going to take over Iraq? Other thoughts?

7:48 PM  

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