One of the more bizarre notions currently finding favor in jingoistic quarters is a conviction that the United States in the 21st century ought to model itself after the British Empire in its 19th- and early 20th-century heyday. According to modish historians such as Niall Ferguson, the record of imperial Britain contains a trove of wisdom that imperial America can put to good use keeping order, fostering prosperity, and spreading the blessings of civilization. All that’s needed is for the sole superpower of the present day—according to Ferguson, an “empire in denial”—to step up to the plate and overcome its refusal “to acknowledge the full extent of its responsibilities.” With that in mind, Ferguson counsels the people of the United States “to get over the American inhibition about learning from non-American history.”
There is something to be said for this advice: when it comes to tapping the lessons of history, Americans do tend to rely on a meager stock of familiar analogies of sometimes questionable relevance. To appreciate our current predicament, we ought to cast our net more broadly. So let us refrain from further references to quagmires and Tet Offensives. Enough already with the uncharitable comparisons of Donald Rumsfeld to Robert McNamara. As we consider the fate awaiting us as the Bush administration wades ever more deeply into the region that it grandly refers to as the Broader Middle East, let us profit from the experience of Great Britain.
Yet on that score, the lessons that history has to teach are almost entirely negative. British ambitions in the Middle East nearly a century ago, as grandiose in their way as the Bush administration’s in our own day, produced disastrous results and cost Britain its empire.
“Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” So proclaimed Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, the British equivalent of Gen. Tommy Franks and the commander of the British forces that entered Baghdad in March 1917. As with the rhetoric employed to justify the invasion of March 2003, Sir Frederick’s statement was at best a half-truth. London’s actual purpose—like Washington’s some 86 years later—was hegemony. Freeing the people of Mesopotamia from Turkish oppression was a means to a larger end. The real aim was to institute a new political order, not only along the Tigris and Euphrates but across the region, thereby securing British control over the Persian Gulf oil that appeared crucial to the preservation of British power.
Granted, Britain could count on a homegrown variant of our own neoconservatives to camouflage the true nature of the enterprise. These ideologues, close to and sometimes within the British government, insisted that the motive force for British actions in the Middle East and elsewhere was to be found in British ideals. Thus, according to Arthur Hirtzel, an official of the India Office, “The Empire … has been given to us as a means to that great end for which Christ came into the world, the redemption of the human race. That is to say, it has been given to us to make it Christian. This is to be Britain’s contribution to the redemption of mankind.” In its way, Hirtzel’s book The Church, The Empire, and The World, published in 1919, stands as a precursor to Richard Perle and David Frum’s An End to Evil, published in 2003. The former summons Britain to redeem mankind by converting nonbelievers; the latter calls on the United States to redeem mankind by spreading democratic values. Both provide handy moral justifications for employing the sword, and both neatly disguise more sordid raison d’etat.
As in the global War on Terror and in the so-called Great War, the incursion into Iraq was merely Step One in what was intended to be a multi-phased campaign. Employing a combination of its own army and surrogates to peel off portions of the ramshackle Ottoman Empire, Great Britain sought to maneuver itself into a position where it could redraw the map of the entire region. American soldiers who in 1918 rallied to assist hard-pressed British troops on the Western Front may have believed that they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy and to enshrine a new right of “self-determination.” But British officials knew better: the war to defeat German militarism was also an opportunity for imperial expansion and for keeping competitors—not least of all the United States—from horning in on the strategically vital Persian Gulf.
The upshot: in the aftermath of World War I, British statesmen engineered a peace settlement that brought the empire to its high-water mark. Out of an Anglo-French system of mandates and protectorates, of puppet monarchs and compliant sheiks, there emerged the modern Middle East. By 1920, with luckless France obliged to content itself with Lebanon and Syria, Britain controlled directly or indirectly the territory encompassing the present-day countries of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Iran.
But British statesmen wanted to do more than simply rearrange boundaries and install local sycophants onto thrones of doubtful provenance. To ensure the permanent incorporation of the Middle East into Britain’s sphere of influence, they sought to Anglicize the region. Local elites thoroughly imbued with British values could be counted on to defer willingly to London on matters large and small.
With this in mind, the British government devised what the Bush administration in our own day describes as a “strategy of transformation.” Here Britain’s imperial ambitions appeared to converge with the interests of Zionists lobbying to create a Jewish homeland. Even before the war and prior to the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, British statesmen fancied that the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine could serve as a beachhead of British values and culture in the region. Winston Churchill, for one, believed, “The establishment of a strong, free Jewish state astride the bridge between Europe and Africa … would not only be an immense advantage to the British Empire, but a notable step towards the harmonious disposition of the world among its peoples.” The idea, according to Leo Amery, a member of Prime Minister Lloyd George’s wartime inner circle, was quite simple, “using the Jews as we have used the Scots, to carry the English ideal through the Middle East,” Britain could “make Palestine the centre of western influence.”
It all seemed so logical and so straightforward. Yet even before the various elements of this bold design were in place, it all began to unravel. The new British order for the Middle East became, to cite the title of David Fromkin’s brilliant book on the topic, A Peace to End All Peace.
Notably, among the first places in which trouble appeared was Iraq, which Britain in a spurious exercise in nation-building had cobbled together out of disparate tribal groups. Beginning in June 1920, a series of seemingly unrelated anti-British uprisings occurred, which the liberators attempted to suppress by relying on Britain’s strong suit—not, as it turned out, Christian ideals, but superior firepower. Appreciating that Britain had too few ground troops to meet all of its far-flung responsibilities, Churchill, then serving as Secretary of State for War and Air, assigned the chief responsibility for pacifying Iraq to the Royal Air Force. Eager to prove its worth as an imperial police force, the fledgling RAF seized upon this mission with considerable eagerness. In the campaign of aerial intimidation that ensued, avoiding noncombatant casualties did not figure as a priority. As one RAF squadron leader noted, “if the tribespeople were doing something they ought not to be doing then you shot them.”
Bringing recalcitrant Iraqis to heel was essential if Britain were to consolidate the winnings it had scooped up as a consequence of World War I. But in Iraq, firepower could win battles but not hearts and minds. Indeed, it was in Iraq that the long, mournful process of British imperial decline began.
In fact, the anticipated “transformation” of the new Middle East into a bastion of British influence never took hold. Instead, there ensued a delaying action that played itself out over several decades as London struggled to stanch the gradual erosion of its position in the region. The effort led Britain to overextend itself economically and to compromise itself morally—not least of all in its cynical response to the sensitive issue of Jewish immigration into Palestine.
Worse, resources frittered away in trying to maintain some semblance of a foothold in the Middle East were unavailable to counter the rising Nazi threat of the 1930s. Rather than contributing to British security, the Middle East served only to complicate it further. Indeed, when war erupted once again in Europe, most Arabs in the lands nominally controlled by Great Britain tilted toward Germany. In mid-1941, the RAF was once again bombing Iraqis—this time to put down a coup mounted by rabidly pro-Nazi (and anti-Semitic) fanatics.
By the time World War II ended, the jig was up. A series of humiliating setbacks ensued. In Palestine, London simply threw up its hands and left. (Not surprisingly, fostering the spread of British values did not appear on the agenda of the Jewish state that emerged shortly thereafter; Israelis did not see themselves as Scots.) Egypt and Iraq gave Britain the boot. Elsewhere, especially where oil profits were to be had, the rich Americans elbowed their impoverished ally aside. The low point came in the Suez Crisis of 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to bring Britain to its knees economically if it did not call off its ill-advised invasion of Egypt. Prime Minister Anthony Eden meekly complied. The British lion was well on its way to becoming what present-day Britons themselves deride as an American poodle.
What does this record of miscalculation and misadventure have to teach the United States today? Viewed in retrospect, when it comes to pursuing its aims in the Middle East, Albion comes across not so much as perfidious as reckless and foolish. The schemes that Britain devised and the messianic claims offered up to justify those schemes seem silly. The lack of realism—the refusal to consider whether Britain possessed the reserves of power to fulfill its ambitions—appears simply stupefying. Above all, the assumption that the peoples of the Middle East would necessarily buy into British notions of what is right and good was utterly misguided. In short, the expectation that Great Britain in the 1920s might manipulate events so as to suit its own purposes was a pipedream, doomed from the start.
To state the matter plainly, Great Britain botched the Middle East and forfeited its position as a world power as a consequence. Today British politicians like Tony Blair, with his neo-Churchillian posturing, and British imperial apologists like Niall Ferguson, with his neo-Kiplingesque call to shoulder the White Man’s Burden, are asking the United States to clean up the mess created in no small measure as a direct result of British folly.
So let us learn from our cousins across the pond. If that’s what empire has on offer, then thanks but no thanks.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, is the author of The New American Militarism, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.