“Historical parallels are slippery,” Karl E. Meyer observes. These days, casual comparisons of the United States, circa 2005, to Nazi Germany are commonplace. Conscientious citizens note the zealous nationalism, political bullying and corporate control present in our great nation and perhaps see in this combination the seeds of fascism, but to suggest that the United States is becoming - much less has become - an entity as diseased and confused as Nazi Germany is premature. Why then are so many liberals eagerly embracing the comparison, lampooning themselves as reactionary alarmists in the process?
Meyer realizes the dangers of making such explicit parallels, but his “Forty Years in the Sand: What happened the last time freedom marched in Iraq” (Harper’s Magazine, June 2005), makes clear how remarkably similar Britain’s position in Iraq at the turn of the last century is to that of the United States, one hundred years later. The “quagmire” that the Brits found themselves in – both in the Middle East and in India - precipitated the recession of their colonial reach and, in turn, their imperial status. “Why did it all end so badly?,” Meyer asks. His answer: governance proved impossible.
A few months ago, I watched “Lawrence of Arabia” for the first time in a decade. As a child I had been impressed by T.E. Lawrence’s ability to, for lack of a better word, understand the Arabs – played by western actors covered in dark makeup – and lead them to victory. Watching it today, though, I felt very differently about his role. This is no champion of the Arabs, I realized; Lawrence is just another colonial engineer, concerned principally with obtaining control of the region for Britain. After the movie ended, I wrote, “Whatever the reality of T.E. Lawrence’s life may be, this film presents us with an egomaniac who accomplished little for the Arabs he so urgently wished to lead to freedom.”
Karl Meyer condemns Lawrence further, merely by including selections from Lawrence’s journals.
“I could see that if we won the war the promises to the Arabs were dead paper. Had I been an honourable adviser, I would have sent my men home, and not let them risk their lives for such stuff.”
“…our immediate aims, the break-up of the Islamic ‘bloc’ and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire…The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion, and yet always ready to combine against an outside force.”
In other words, with British guidance the former Islamic “bloc” could be made into an oil reservoir, albeit one requiring colonial babysitters. Lawrence of Arabia charged across the desert with his Arab army at a time when World War I was reaching its zenith. It wasn’t but a decade earlier that Britain sent their military men into the Middle East (Persia) to begin prospecting for oil. The British empire needed the oil because they were switching from “coal-burning ships to faster, oil-fueled vessels” and were already too dependent on “scattered coaling stations.” That the fight against Turkey could be combined with Lawrence’s “break-up of the Islamic ‘bloc’” served the empire all too well. It was of little surprise, then, that 1918 saw “The Big Three” – President Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau – parcel the Middle East into various countries, Iraq being the most curious (and ill-considered) of provincial marriages.
“The British created Iraq in 1918, confident it would become a beacon of enlightenment unto the Middle East, that it would nurture moderate Arab regimes, that its monarchs would serve as peacemakers between Zionists and Arabs in Palestine, and that it would anchor the region in the wider interests of a far-flung empire.”
This is beginning to sound familiar, but Meyer makes the comparison more explicit still. George Nathaniel Curzon, a leading British political figure of the late nineteenth century and later the foreign secretary and viceroy of India, described Britain’s work overseas as God’s will. “The Empire was ‘under Providence, the greatest instrument for good the world has seen.’ Speaking in Crawford, Texas, in August 2002, President George W. Bush inadvertently echoed Lord Curzon: ‘Our nation is the greatest force for good in history.’”
Britain spent 40 years trying to make Iraq into all that they had hoped for. Eventually, they were forced to pull out and the country collapsed, allowing the Ba’ath Party to rise and install Saddam Hussein. But Meyer closes his excellent piece with a reminder that historical parallels are only that. The failure of the Brits does not mean the United State's future in Iraq has already been written. “The United States is not bound by destiny to fail in Iraq. But to repeat British strategies and expect better results is the essence of folly…That is the promise of history.”
Note: all selections included in this post are taken from the Meyer article.