Aired on KERA — FM (NPR), Dallas, Texas Sept.8, 2006
When members of the administration insist that the situation in Iraq today is akin to Hitler’s Germany, I worry that they really believe this. They really are convinced that an ultra- centralized, highly militarized, Teutonically organized, aggressive, land-grabbing regime like that of Adolph Hitler is the same as the chaotic, religiously mad, badly though lethally armed insurgents ripping through Iraq today, bent on imploding a single state. Perhaps you could say that the Middle Eastern mind of the moment resembles the brutal disposition of ruling Germans in the 1930s and 40s, but there the similarity ends.
There is a lesson of history that would have benefitted Washington, however, had anybody chosen to learn it, and that is the British experience in Iraq after World War I. A study of Churchill and his work in Mesopotamia would have taught the Pentagon far more than his desperate opposition to Neville Chamberlain 18 years later, after Munich.
Joel Rayburn, a major in the U.S. Army, described in the magazine Foreign Affairs how, in 1920, as the British assumed control of Iraq under a mandate from the League of Nations, Shiite insurgents raged across the country, costing the new occupation 2,000 casualties. While Churchill and Gertrude Bell recruited Prince Faisal from Arabia to become king in Baghdad and arranged for a government, T. E. Lawrence, famous for his exploits in Arabia, argued back in London, that “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. . . .We are today not far from a disaster.”
Pressure like this, from opposition politicians and the press, caused Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to withdraw most of his forces from Iraq in 1927 and announce plans to end the mandate in 1932, when the pledge had been to stay for 20 or 30 years. Trouble erupted, with the Kurds rampaging in the north and Wahhabis attacking in the south. Turkey, energized by Ataturk, invaded Mosul, unsuccessfully, but nonetheless stirring up more distress among the Kurds. The Sunnis, knowing the British were leaving, waited for their moment. Then the army staged a coup in 1936. “When war broke out in Europe,” wrote Joel Rayburn, “Baghdad opened back channels to the Axis powers, then finally offered up the country to Hitler in 1941.” That’s where Hitler figured in Iraq. It meant the British had to move back in to protect their position.
Joel Rayburn warned that this is what would happen if the U.S. left Iraq too soon. Maybe. But one observer noted that Iraq will always be a mess, no matter what, not the “heavily veiled, ugly step sister of Turkey,” as one expert has predicted. The issue hasn’t changed: when does the U.S. leave Iraq to its fate, which probably is the rise of another strongman, military or religious, to run the country. The argument that fighting in Iraq is keeping terrorists from our own shores doesn’t hold up any more than does the analogy to Hitler. What about those airliners, headed for American cities, that were almost blown up in London? Fighting in Iraq did nothing to prevent the planning for that atrocity. The question is this: Are we doing enough on fronts other than Iraq? Or is this distraction too consuming for other, necessary measures?