Joel Rayburn. Foreign Affairs. Volume 85, Issue 2. March/April 2006.
How the British Quit Mesopotamia
The United States was not the first country in the last hundred years to occupy Iraq. That distinction belongs to the United Kingdom, which seized the provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul from the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and formally took control of the new country in 1920, under a mandate from the League of Nations.
A number of pundits have recently noted the parallels between the United Kingdom’s experience eight decades ago and the United States’ today. The comparisons, however, have generally centered on the early and middle phases of both occupations. Too few have focused on the ignominious end of the United Kingdom’s reign in Mesopotamia and the lessons those events hold for the United States today. In fact, Washington’s current position bears a strong resemblance to London’s in the late 1920s, when the British were responsible for the tutelage of a fledgling Iraqi state suffering from immature institutions, active insurgencies, and the interference of hostile neighbors. Eventually, this tutelage was undermined by pressure from the British Parliament and the press to withdraw—forces quite similar to those in the United States now calling for a withdrawal from Iraq. Building a better understanding of the United Kingdom’s mistakes—and of the consequences of that country’s ultimate withdrawal from Iraq—could thus help illuminate the present occupation and provide answers to when and how to end it. If the British record teaches anything, it is this: costly and frustrating as the fostering of Iraqi democracy may be, the costs of leaving the job undone would likely be far higher, for both the occupiers and the Iraqis. This is a lesson the British learned more than seven decades ago, when their premature pullout in 1932 led to more violence in Iraq, the rise of a dictatorship, and a catastrophic unraveling of everything the British had tried to build there.
An Unpopular Occupation
The British occupation of Iraq drew heavy criticism at home almost from its inception. In 1920, a large-scale Shiite insurgency cost the British more than 2,000 casualties, and domestic pressure to withdraw from Iraq began to build. In the revolt’s aftermath, the war hero T. E. Lawrence led a chorus of critics in the press and Parliament denouncing London’s decision to continue the costly occupation. “The people of England,” Lawrence wrote, 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. … Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster….
“We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. … How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?” Although the London Times remained mainly supportive of the government’s policy in Iraq, other leading British papers, most notably the Manchester Guardian, echoed Lawrence’s call to end the occupation.
The result was what historians have called the “Quit Mesopotamia” campaign, which remained an issue in British politics until the end of the British mandate in Iraq in 1932. For more than a decade, a diverse collection of anti-imperialists, pacifists, Labourites, and Lawrence loyalists kept up a steady stream of criticism in the United Kingdom’s opposition press. The Quit Mesopotamia critics effectively tapped into the British sentiment against imperialism, which had become widespread after the end of World War I. The British public’s interest in maintaining a worldwide empire had waned; the working classes, which had sacrificed so much for the war, wanted their government to invest in the stagnant domestic economy, not in costly imperial adventures. Unlike their ally the United States, the United Kingdom experienced no economic boom in the Roaring Twenties, and unemployment steadily rose throughout the decade. British voters registered their disapproval of the Conservatives’ imperialist tendencies by voting the Labour Party of Ramsay MacDonald into power in 1923. Although that Labour government was short-lived (thanks to a scandal), the Conservatives got the message and in 1925 initiated a series of increasingly desperate measures to sell their Iraq policy to the public.
Colonial Secretary Leopold Amery led the rhetorical charge. In speeches in Parliament and before audiences throughout England, Amery blasted critics for their “reckless disregard … of the honour of their country.” Calls by British newspapers to pull out of Iraq only emboldened the country’s enemies, Amery said, and a “policy of scuttle” would expose the British to far greater dangers than those they would encounter while “fulfilling [their] obligations” to the Iraqi people. The London Times weighed in on Amery’s behalf on September 25, 1925, observing that the “cost of premature withdrawal” would probably be a Turkish invasion of Mosul.
Amery claimed that the situation in Iraq was significantly better than his critics realized. Returning from a fact-finding tour of the mandate in 1925, he said that Iraq’s development was proceeding well enough to promise the British a “substantial return” on their investment in that country. The whole Middle East was undergoing fundamental changes, he declared, and Iraq would soon be a model of development and democracy for the entire region. Besides, he said, Iraq was serving as “a splendid training ground” for the Royal Air Force (RAF), which since 1922 had been charged with defending Iraq and maintaining order there.
These arguments made little impression on the opponents of the occupation. The Labour Party accused the Conservatives of wanting to remain in Iraq for the sake of oil stockholders. “We should never get out of [Iraq] without wrenching something, such as the national honour or the interests of bondholders,” declared the senior Labour Party MP and future prime minister Clement Attlee in Parliament in 1926. “Therefore,” he said, “we had better wrench free at once.”
Nonetheless, Amery’s public defense of the occupation helped the policy withstand parliamentary challenges in 1925 and 1926, and the United Kingdom’s occupation looked set to continue indefinitely. In accepting the League of Nations mandate in 1920, the British government had committed itself to at least 20 years of guardianship of Iraq’s state and society, and when it signed the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1926, London promised to stick around until 1951 (or until an independent Iraq joined the league). Yet starting in 1925, the Conservatives began secretly looking for a way out. In 1927—just one year after pledging to stay in Iraq for a quarter century—key ministers in Stanley Baldwin’s government proposed a pullout. According to Robert Cecil, a trusted Baldwin adviser, withdrawal from Iraq would be “a complete answer to those of our critics who allege that we are anxious to have a militarist or adventurous foreign policy. That charge has done us a great deal of harm already and may easily be fatal to our existence at the next election.”
Publicly, the Conservatives began to speak about the need to “reduce expenditure” in Iraq. In 1925, Sir Samuel Hoare, head of the Air Ministry and another close Baldwin adviser, acknowledged that “since the war we [have] spent a great deal in the Middle East, and the British taxpayer [has] asked whether the expenditure was worthwhile, and whether it could be reduced.” Returning from a trip to Iraq that year, Hoare announced that once the contested frontier near Mosul was settled with Turkey, the British could reduce their role in Iraq. As a government minister, Hoare could not have made this declaration without Baldwin’s approval; his statement therefore had the effect of an official promise to bring home some British troops. And indeed, the Conservatives soon made the promise a reality: by early 1927, the Baldwin government had pulled most British soldiers out of Iraq, leaving a few RAF squadrons and a battalion of Indian infantry to defend the country alongside a fledgling Iraqi army of only 9,000 men.
Defining Deviancy Down
Although the pullout may have been expedient in one sense for Baldwin’s government, it was also politically awkward. After all, the United Kingdom had publicly promised to stay in Iraq for years. If it was going to extricate itself quickly, it needed a way to save face in the process. And finding one was difficult, for Iraq had hardly made the kind of progress the Conservatives had originally predicted.
In taking on the mission in Iraq, the British had set out ambitious benchmarks for their trustee’s development. When Sir Arnold Wilson, Britain’s high commissioner in Iraq, announced the mandate to Iraqis in May 1920, he proclaimed that the United Kingdom’s aim was to create “a healthy body politic, guided and controlled by healthy public opinion.” Just six months later, Wilson’s successor, the diplomat Sir Percy Cox, told Iraqis their government should be formed “by the people themselves” through a “National Congress fully representative of the people.” In keeping with these principles, the Colonial Office’s annual public reports on Iraq indicated that success in the country would be measured by the establishment of political stability, real security, and the protection of minority rights.
By 1925, however, the Conservative government began to recognize that Iraq was scoring poorly in all those areas. This meant that the only way to leave with honor would be to redefine the standards of success and overstate Iraq’s achievements. Beginning in 1925, the British proceeded to do just that: over the next seven years, London’s progress reports to the League of Nations increasingly diverged from reality. British officials consistently minimized their commitments and proclaimed Iraq’s progress in public, even while privately acknowledging widespread, serious problems.
The worst of these problems was Iraq’s lack of security. As the United Kingdom scaled back its garrisons in Iraq, it left the country increasingly exposed to hostile neighbors. British commanders in Baghdad, unlike their political bosses in London, recognized the dangers in this approach and strained to find a feasible scheme for defending the country with fewer troops. A 1926 RAF study recommended establishing a string of border forts and pacifying the armed raiders who would periodically surge out of Syria and Transjordan to attack Iraqi tribes and ambush convoys on the desert roads. But British commanders were given no men with which to implement the defense plan.
Instead, in March 1927, the Baldwin government proclaimed the Iraqi army capable of defending the country itself and withdrew the last battalion of British ground troops. Mere months later, southern Iraq came under attack by thousands of Wahhabi Ikhwan (“brothers”). The Ikhwan were a puritanical sect that had brutally conquered the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1924. Like today’s insurgents under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Ikhwan were Salafi fighters who invaded Iraq from the desert to terrorize its Shiites (whom the Salafi consider apostates). For the better part of two years, starting in 1927, all that stood between the Ikhwan and the lightly armed Iraqi tribes was a small desert detachment of British-trained Iraqi troops under the leadership of Captain John Glubb, who would later head the Arab Legion in Transjordan. Only with great difficulty did Glubb obtain occasional air support from the overstretched RAF squadrons stationed near Basra and Baghdad.
British officials were slow to grasp the extent of the Ikhwan threat. The British high commissioner in Iraq at the time, Sir Henry Dobbs, declared the Ikhwan defeated in 1928. Acknowledging that the Wahhabi invaders had hurt Iraq’s economy by discouraging foreign investment, he informed the press that “the only grave injury done to Iraq … [has] been inflicted by wild reports manufacturing scare after scare.” In fact, although no official report was ever conducted, it is probable that the Ikhwan managed to kill hundreds of Iraqis. Dobbs’ assessment of the Ikhwan’s strength, meanwhile, was also wrong: the next year, they invaded again, in large numbers. Indeed, the Ikhwan continued to threaten Iraq until they were routed by the army of Ibn Saud in mid-1929.
During this same period, the resurgent Turkey of Mustafa Kemal (better known as Atatrk) threatened Iraq from the north. Kemalist Turkey mounted an unsuccessful invasion of Mosul in 1922 and thereafter continually intrigued against Iraqi rule among the Kurdish tribes in the region. Like Iraq’s Sunni Arabs today, the Kurds of the mandate period represented a communal threat that consumed the attention and resources of the Iraqi state. With Turkish support, the Pesh Merga of the Barzani tribe and its allies were able to sustain an insurgency against the Iraqi government for almost four years. At one point, the Iraqi army was forced to deploy three-quarters of its strength in the Kurdish Sulaimaniya region in an attempt to put down the insurgents. In the spring of 1931, as the formal handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis approached, the British roused themselves to pacify the Kurds for good. For over a month, the RAF bombed Kurdish villages, finally forcing the rebels to capitulate.
Under the mandate, Iraq’s next biggest problem—which the British government also routinely downplayed—was its politics. Although London’s public reports to the League of Nations throughout the 1920s sang the praises of Iraq’s new institutions, by the end of the decade British officials had begun to acknowledge privately that the Iraqi government had become the exclusive domain of the royal Hashemite family and a few hundred Sunni Arab politicians. This was hardly the liberal, westernized polity the British had set out to create in 1920. But as the end of the mandate approached—and domestic demands for withdrawal grew louder—British officials abandoned plans for a real democracy in Iraq. “My hope,” wrote High Commissioner Dobbs, “is that … [Iraq] may be able to rub along in a corrupt, inefficient, oriental sort of way, something better than she was under Turkish rule. … If this is the result, even though it be not a very splendid one, we shall have built better than we knew.”
Both Dobbs and his successor, Sir Francis Humphrys, believed that the United Kingdom should simply validate the rule of the Sunni elite in Iraq and let them govern without oversight. Both men reported to London that appeasing Iraq’s urban Sunni Arabs was the key to the country’s stability, and since the Sunnis wanted the British to leave, both Dobbs and Humphrys advised London to do so. Their assessments ignored the fact that Iraq’s Sunni elite planned to consolidate its control of the country by excluding from politics Iraq’s Shiites, Kurds, and smaller minorities. These disenfranchised groups, however, could read the writing on the wall and viewed the prospect of a British withdrawal with alarm; by 1929, they had come to view British administrators as a check against Sunni domination.
The League of Nations mandate had stipulated that Iraq’s minorities should be protected, and throughout the 1920s, the British had promised social and economic equity to groups such as the Assyrians and the Kurds. But the British government’s political maneuvers in the late 1920s made securing minority rights impossible. Seeking to quiet its critics at home, in late 1929 the British government announced its intention to terminate the mandate in 1932. London followed this announcement in 1930 by signing a new Anglo-Iraqi treaty that spelled out British rights in Iraq but contained no language protecting Iraq’s minorities. The announcement that the mandate would be terminated effectively turned the British administrators into lame ducks. After that, the Sunnis, anticipating the British withdrawal, simply stonewalled all British efforts to secure specific minority rights.
Even as they recommended that the League of Nations accept Iraq as a fully independent member, some British officials began to privately warn their colleagues that Iraq’s new, British-built institutions had not had time to mature and that chaos might follow the British pullout. A contemporary report written at the Royal Institute of International Affairs documented the fear that Iraq was being allowed to “run before it could walk.” In Baghdad, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis (a senior British adviser) warned London that if it left too soon, “My own prediction is that [the Iraqis] will all fly at each other’s throats and that there will be a bad slump in the administration that will continue until someone strong enough to dominate the country emerges, or, alternatively, until we have to step in and intervene.” In the course of events, both of these predictions came to pass.
Yet none of these private misgivings were ever made public. Instead, with breathtaking mendacity, report after report praised Iraq’s progress. In September 1929, Cornwallis’ superiors in London declared that “Iraq, judged by the criteria of internal security, sound public finance, and enlightened administration, would be in every way fit for admission to the League of Nations by 1932.” In order to have Iraq meet this standard, of course, the British government had already dramatically lowered the bar. Dobbs declared that it was unrealistic to expect that “Iraq should from the first be able to challenge comparison with the most highly developed and civilized nations of the modern world.” In his opinion, Iraq would be ready for full independence as soon as it was “at least as stable as China, Portugal, Greece, or Abyssinia”—arguably the four weakest members of the League of Nations.
Things Fall Apart
In retrospect, it seems clear that the political and public pressure of the Quit Mesopotamia campaign led the British government first to overstate its progress in Iraq and then to abandon the project too early—with disastrous consequences. London’s decision to withdraw British troops by 1927 left Iraq unable to resist either the Wahhabi invasion or the Kurdish insurgency. The British government’s premature announcements of Iraqi independence actually undermined security in the country by causing the various factions to begin positioning themselves for a civil war once the British left.
When the mandate actually ended in 1932, Iraq’s British-built institutions began, one by one, to collapse. With the occupiers gone, Iraq’s Sunni Arab elite used the army not to defend the state against foreign invaders, but to suppress Iraq’s Assyrians, Kurds, and Shiites. The Iraqi army of the 1930s was the most dangerous kind: it was easily the most powerful institution in the country, too strong to be checked by other groups and free from any real constitutional constraints, but it was also too weak to actually defend Iraq from outsiders. As the British-installed King Faisal lay dying in Switzerland in 1933, Iraqi troops massacred Assyrians in northern Iraq and returned to Baghdad as heroes. Army leaders then used their newfound prestige to meddle in the country’s politics, backing certain factions in parliament in return for the passage of conscription laws that bolstered the army’s strength but turned young Shiite men into a military underclass. By 1936, Iraq’s generals had gathered enough power to carry out a military coup, ending constitutional government and setting a precedent that would recur again and again.
At the same time, Iraqi society, the most ethnically diverse in the Arab world, came fully under the sway of Sunni Arab chauvinists. Typical of this development was the fate of Iraq’s educational system, which fell under the control of Sati al-Husri, a Syrian pan-Arabist who taught that Shiite Islam was heretical. Under his influence, the Iraqi government began to suppress Shiite religious holidays and practices—a policy that sparked large-scale Shiite uprisings in the mid-1930s. By the 1940s, Iraq, one of the least Sunni of all Arab states, had become a bulwark of what historian Elie Kedourie called “the Sunni spirit of domination.”
The coups following 1936 mostly involved the Sunni Arab officer corps. By 1939, Iraq’s military rulers had become openly hostile to the United Kingdom. When war broke out in Europe, Baghdad opened back channels to the Axis powers, and it finally offered up the country to Hitler in 1941. Faced with the prospect of an Axis stronghold on their line of communication to India, the British were forced to invade Iraq once again. As British troops approached Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers and police carried out a final act of official butchery, slaughtering hundreds of Iraqi Jews. There followed a second British occupation of the country that lasted until 1948.
Had the United Kingdom stayed longer the first time around, much of this mayhem could have been avoided. Continued British oversight would have prevented the Iraqi government from falling into the hands of military dictators, and the presence of a British force in the country would likely have restrained the Iraqi army from preying on Iraq’s minority communities. Since the British had opposed Iraqi conscription throughout the 1920s, it is safe to assume they would have continued to do so if the mandate had been extended, thereby removing a significant irritant from the relationships among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian communities. The typically pragmatic British political advisers would also have been unlikely to allow Sunni Arab supremacists to pervert Iraq’s public educational system.
These restraints could have helped Iraq develop into a more stable society, in which Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and other minorities would have somehow found a way to live together peacefully. Instead, these groups spent the next 70 years of Iraq’s independence with daggers drawn, each decade pocked by civil war.
Like the U.S.-led coalition today, the United Kingdom of the 1920s began its Iraq project by pledging long-term support for Iraq’s defense and development. In the ensuing years, the British encountered a set of problems similar to those facing today’s coalition: deep ethnic and sectarian divisions, an internal Iraqi power struggle, the infiltration of Salafi terrorists from neighboring countries, active insurgencies carried on by minority groups, and hostile regional powers across the borders. And once again, these seemingly intractable problems and their associated violence have spawned an intense movement to end the occupation of Iraq—to quit Mesopotamia.
Washington thus now finds itself facing roughly the same question that London faced between 1925 and 1927: Should it leave Iraq, or continue until its project there has truly fulfilled its aims? In the British case, both sides of the debate—the Quit Mesopotamia critics and the Conservative officials who minimized Iraq’s problems—apparently believed that the United Kingdom could leave Iraq without repercussions, regardless of whether the mandate had actually served its purpose. They came to assume that an independent Iraq would somehow muddle along—and that if it did not, the consequences would not affect the British.
Accordingly, the Conservative government succumbed to the political and media pressure to pull out. After 1925, as British officials continued to pay lip service to the original goals of the mandate, they privately began looking for ways to withdraw early, even though many of them recognized that chaos would ensue. To avoid a similar result today, the U.S. government and its allies must confront what the United Kingdom’s premature withdrawal achieved: namely, disaster both for Iraq and for its occupier. Having left the work of the mandate undone, the British were forced to return and attempt to finish the job nine misery-filled years later. The United States can ill afford to do the same.