Imperial Comparisons

What can the U.S. learn from Britain’s imperial experience in Iraq?

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Weary of the persistent back-and-forth about whether Iraq is another Vietnam? Well, another quite different historical analogy has begun to make the rounds. A number of recent editorials and articles contend that the British occupation of Iraq during the early 20th century is the more apt point of comparison to our current predicament in Iraq.

Among the parallels, the British had to confront religious and ethnic divisions; they installed a pro-British puppet government: and they sought the approval of the League of Nations—the predecessor to the United Nations—to legitimize their occupation. The British interest in Iraq, moreover, had much to do with oil.

The British invaded Mesopotamia in 1917, ending Ottoman rule in the region. Iraqis were glad to be rid of their old rulers, but the British were not greeted as the “liberators” they portrayed themselves to be. Instead, much like the American and British troops today, they were resented as occupiers. In 1920, 8,450 Iraqis and 2,200 British troops were killed in an unanticipated revolt led by the Shiites. The British successfully put down the revolt, but not before inflicting massive civilian casualties.

For Niall Ferguson, the British historian who popularized the parallel in the American media, the lessons for the United States from the 1920 revolt are that such uprisings should be expected and that they must be put down immediately and “severely”—a la the British. Then, the United States can work on putting together a friendly government to which it can transfer power to. Those Americans who believe that all this can be done without heavy American casualties, massive expenditures, or that the responsibility should be dumped on the U.N. are mistaken. As Ferguson writes in the New York Times :

“The anti-British revolt began in May, six months after a referendum—in practice, a round of consultation with tribal leaders—on the country’s future and just after the announcement that Iraq would become a League of Nations ‘mandate’ under British trusteeship rather than continue under colonial rule. In other words, neither consultation with Iraqis nor the promise of internationalization sufficed to avert an uprising—a fact that should give pause to those, like Senator John Kerry, who push for a handover to the United Nations…

Then as now, the insurrection had religious origins and leaders, but it soon transcended the country’s ancient ethnic and sectarian divisions. The first anti-British demonstrations were in the mosques of Baghdad. But the violence quickly spread to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where British rule was denounced by Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi—perhaps the historical counterpart of today’s Shiite firebrand, Moktada al-Sadr.”

Britain installed a Sunni monarch—King Faisal—in 1921, relinquished its mandate of the country in 1932, giving Iraq “limited sovereignty,” and did not withdraw all of its troops until 1955. The U.S., in other words, should expect to stay for the long haul, if it wants stability in Iraq.

But is the British approach worth emulating? Joel Rayburn, an Army general who teaches at West Point, shares Ferguson’s view that the U.S. must take a hard line against the insurgents, but also notes that the British occupation left much to be desired. Following King Faisal’s death in 1933, ethnic conflict ensued, and the military trampled on the powers of what was supposed to be a constitutional monarchy. As Rayburn argues in the Los Angeles Times:

“Pressured by an economic downturn and warnings of ‘imperial overstretch,’ the British government withdrew the vast majority of its troops from Iraq, leaving the remainder at a few bases near Iraq’s oil fields; the British had concessionary oil rights for 75 years ….

For three years, the majority Shiites of southern Iraq intermittently rebelled against the Sunni-dominated government and each time were crushed by the Sunni-led army. In the north, the army took vengeance on the Assyrian Christians, who had served as British troops under the mandate and were thus viewed by Iraqi nationalists as collaborators.

By 1935, the Iraqi army could dictate the membership of the prime minister’s Cabinet, while the prime minister’s seat was occupied by one army officer after another. As Iraq’s civilian politicians faded from the political scene, the government restricted civil liberties and increased the army’s size.”

The British eventually returned to try and salvage the constitutional monarchy in 1940, after the Iraqi military began negotiating with the Nazis, but the victory was short lived. In 1958, three years after the British withdrew, the military led a successful coup.

Many of the questions facing the United States are indeed the same ones facing the British last century. Are high civilian casualties the price worth paying for putting down rebellions? Or will such tactics be self-defeating in the end, inflaming public opinion against the occupiers, and bolstering the militants’ cause? Should an unpopular but loyal government be installed? Or should the occupying power be prepared to accept the rise of popular figures it finds distasteful? Should it play divide and rule among the various ethnic groups and exploit sectarian divisions?

The British favored the minority Sunnis and the Assyrians, just as the U.S. has been accused of favoring the majority Shiites over Saddam’s Sunni brethren. The U.S. reversal on the de-Baathification policy—which excluded members of Hussein’s party from serving in the new government has, however, been seen as a move to co-opt Sunni military officers and soldiers, bureaucrats, and the intellectuals. Favoritism, of course, does not necessarily guarantee loyalty. The British faced opposition from the Shiites as well as the Sunnis and the U.S. is already facing separate Sunni and Shiite insurgencies. If the hate of the occupation prevails over sectarian differences, the U.S. may face yet more serious rebellions ahead.

Ferguson has challenged Americans’ resistance to view the United States as a modern-day empire. But what is an empire? Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis defines empire as

“…a situation in which a single state shapes the behavior of others, whether directly or indirectly, partially or completely, by means that can range from the outright use of force through intimidation, dependency, inducements, and even inspiration.”

Ferguson contends that the United States fits this definition and the recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan only bolster his case. Whether it is military intervention or economic pressure, the United States has lots of power to force other countries to do what it wants them to do. Most importantly, it not only has, but exercises that power. We are comfortable calling ourselves a superpower, but our national myth of being a young democracy spreading democracy elsewhere, makes us cringe at the thought that we are an empire.

Not that Ferguson considers empire to be a dirty word. On the contrary, he argues that empires can be a force for good. According to this view, the U.S. should take cue from Britain in the late 19th century and mold itself into a “liberal empire”—one that uses its power to impose all sorts of enlightened reforms in Iraq and elsewhere.

Last year, the Guardian gave Ferguson the dubious distinction of being “new-found darling of the American right.” But even the neo-cons shudder at the “e” word. As Ferguson laments: “U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously told al-Jazeera ‘we don’t do empire’. But how can you not be an empire and maintain 750 military bases in three-quarters of the countries on earth?” Then again, how can you convince the public to support a war based on bogus intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and a non-existent Hussein-al Qaeda link?

It is Ferguson’s observations about U.S. history that make him skeptical that the U.S. will follow the path of the British Empire. For one, the United States has been usually reluctant to get entangled in long-term occupation. Second, the uncharacteristically sharp fall in public support for the Iraqi venture in spite of military losses far lower than those in previous wars, including Vietnam, suggest that politicians will eschew long-term commitments. While the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the absence of the draft distinguish Iraq, as Ferguson rightly notes, from Vietnam, not all the Vietnam comparisons are “facile.” The public’s increasing questioning of the purpose of the American mission in Iraq and distrust of the White House on the matter, is quite reminiscent of Vietnam.

There’s a problem with Ferguson’s endorsement of the “liberal empire” model for the United States. The term, in the end, is an oxymoron because there comes a breaking point when liberal reforms threaten the imperial hold. Imperial installations of unpopular governments through the exploitation of sectarian differences and use of brutal force to put down the opposition—all in the name of liberalism—are nothing new. But this hardly gives liberalism a good name. As James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute told the Washington Post:

“If anything defines the history of the last century, it’s the sense of having lost control . . . This is not about Saddam Hussein. This is about one more time when Western powers are coming in to redefine the Arab region.”

Democratization did not fare well during the British occupation of Iraq and any pretense of reform was killed off when they left. That is hardly an imperial example worth following.


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