Saturday, January 14, 2006

Churchill on Iraq

No, not Ward, Winston. Speech to the House of Commons on June 14, 1921.

Broadly speaking, there are two policies which can be adopted towards the Arab race. One is the policy of keeping them divided, of discouraging their national aspirations, of setting up administrations of local notables in each particular province or city, and exerting an influence through the jealousies of one tribe against another. That was largely, in many cases, the Turkish policy before the war, and, cynical as it was, it undoubtedly achieved a certain measure of success. The other policy, and the one which, I think, is alone compatible with the sincere fulfilment of the pledges we gave during the war to the Arab race and to the Arab leaders, is an attempt to build up around their ancient capital of Baghdad, in a form friendly to Britain and to her Allies, an Arab State which can revive and embody the old culture and glories of the Arab race, and which, at any rate, will have a full and fair opportunity of doing so if the Arab race shows itself capable of profiting by it. Of these two policies we have definitely chosen the latter.

On the subject of a long-term occupation, he sounds remarkably like the current Bush Administration, eager to leave the country as soon as possible. In Churchill's day, before the opening of the oil fields and with the British Navy still largely coal-fueled, natural resources weren't a question, and Britain had few if any strategic interests in Iraq:

...I can hold out no hope that we shall be found willing to continue these direct responsibilities. Our object and our policy is to set up an Arab Government, and to make it take the responsibility, with our aid and our guidance and with an effective measure of our support, until they are strong enough to stand alone, and so to foster the development of their independence as to permit the steady and speedy diminution of our burden. ... [O]ur policy in Mesopotamia is to reduce our commitments and to extricate ourselves from our burdens while at the same time honourably discharging our obligations and building up a strong and effective Arab Government which will always be the friend of Britain and, I will add, the friend of France.

Interesting, then, to recall that the situation Americans are in in recent years with regard to Iraq is not a new one. The mix of altruistic motives and self-interest in building up a strong, stable Arab state was on Churchill's plate, too.

Our current mission has his nod of approval from beyond the veil, perhaps. But it also has the example of the failure, ultimately, of Iraq to achieve what he hoped for it.

There is another warning in Churchill's speech. At the time, he was promoting as part of British policy the family of the then-Sherif of Mecca, King Hussein, two of whose sons he eventually managed to place on the thrones of Jordan and Iraq. In doing so, he pointed to the danger from a fanatical tribe, then living miserably in a bleak stretch of Arabia. Their faith was Wahabism, and their name was Saud.

In the vast deserts of Arabia, which stretch eastward and north-eastward from the neighbourhood of Mecca to the Persian Gulf and to the boundaries of Mesopotamia, there dwell the people of Nejd, powerful nomadic tribes, at the head of whom the remarkable chief Bin Saud maintains himself. This Arab chief has long been in a state of warfare, raid, and reprisal with King Hussein and with his neighbours generally. A large number of Bin Saud's followers belong to the Wahabi sect, a form of Mohammedanism which bears, roughly speaking, the same relation to orthodox Islam as the most militant form of Calvinism would have borne to Rome in the fiercest times of the religious wars. The Wahabis profess a life of exceeding austerity, and what they practise themselves they rigorously enforce on others. They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette, and as for the crime of alcohol, the most energetic supporter of the temperance cause in this country falls far behind them. Austere, intolerant, well-armed, and bloodthirsty, in their own regions the Wahabis are a distinct factor which must be taken into account, and they have been, and still are, very dangerous to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and to the whole institution of the pilgrimage, in which our Indian fellow-subjects are so deeply concerned.

The speech is reprinted on p.82-84 of "Never Give In," a selection of his speeches edited by Churchill's grandson and published in 2003, which I am sure accounts for this otherwise nondescript speech being in the same collection as "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" and "This was their finest hour."

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