Given Its History, Can We Succeed in Iraq?

Mr. Black is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of IBM and the Holocaust. This article is adapted from his just-released book, Banking on Baghdad, Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Wiley), which chronicles 7,000 years of Iraqi history.

America cannot succeed in Iraq until we understand the history we ignored and recently repeated.

Since the beginning of recorded time, Mesopotamia, that is, the V-shaped land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, has been a realm of uninterrupted violence and conflict. Commerce has been a leading cause. The region’s schoolboy subtitle, “Cradle of Civilization,” hailing back some 7,000 years, is more than misleading. Genuine civilizations clearly emerged throughout our world many millennia before Mesopotamia became the so-called “Cradle of Civilization.” Archaeologists have documented civilized and highly organized cultures in ancient Jericho some 9,000 years ago, in southern France where mystic cave art was found dating back some 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, and among southern African cave dwellers some 70,000 years ago.

Nonetheless, on April 8, 1867, during a discussion at the Royal Geographical Society in London, Sir Henry Rawlinson rose to enthusiastically dub Mesopotamia the “Cradle of Civilization,” largely because the region became a commanding commercial center and crossroads. This commercial attraction only raised the stakes for centuries of invasion, conquest and subjugation of its citizens.

As a result, civilization in Iraq had been stopped in its infancy. It had never matured. Instead, it became a mere cradle fit for robbery and abuse by the greatest forces in history: by the most murderous barbarians, by the most powerful nations, by the greediest corporations, by the onslaught of progress that sprang from its midst and took root elsewhere, continents away, and by the ravages of cultural self-wounding that ensured Iraq would remain a prisoner of its own heritage.

Indeed, for nearly 7,000 years, Iraq has been shackled to unspeakable violence, toppled pride, cruel despotic authorities, and an utter lack of self-governance. The unbreachable continuum of its legacy inculcated bitter alienation as a birthright. Rather than becoming an intersection of the most splendid and accomplished, as ancient European civilizations ultimately became, Iraq has become a crossroads of conquest and conflict.

Through it all, the people of Mesopotamia have displayed an irrepressible ability to victimize their victimizers—real or perceived--in a never-ending cycle of violence. For hundreds of years reaching into the twentieth century, even when the ruthless Ottoman Empire ruled the three ethnically diverse provinces of Mesopotamia — Mosul, Baghdad and Basr­a – it did so only from afar and even then only nominally. In the twentieth century alone, no group has been exempt from mass murder and/or mass oppression: Armenians, Assyrians, Baha’is, Chaldeans, Jews, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis—all of them have felt the sting of Iraq’s uncivilized impulses.

During that tempestuous twentieth century in Iraq, the region has offered only one attraction to the Western powers: oil. It has been a fatal attraction, one that has lured the Europeans, and later the Americans, deep into this troubled and tortured land.

The current saga began in WWI when Britain invaded Mesopotamia (as the three neglected Turkish provinces were collectively called) for oil and only for oil. Despite this, the British declared in their May 18, 1918 proclamation, read aloud in Baghdad: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” Subsequent invaders would employ the phrase again and again.

As part of that wartime liberation, the British illegally seized the most valuable oil lands in Mesopotamia, the Kurdish Mosul region, this on November 7, 1918, a full week after the general armistice with Turkey. This invasion enabled Britain to cobble the three ethnically separate Ottoman provinces together—Kurdish Mosul, Sunni Baghdad and Shiite Basra—into a single land that London would rename “ Iraq.” The name “ Iraq” came from the ancient Arab cartographic designation.

The British then established Iraq as a nation for the sole purpose of structuring the exploitation of its oil. Arnold Wilson, the British civil administrator of Mesopotamia, the man who authorized General William Marshall’s unauthorized push into Mosul, wrote, “Thanks to General Marshall, we had established de facto, the principle that Mosul is part of ‘Iraq,’ to use the geographical expression… Whether for the woe or weal of the inhabitants, it is too soon to say.” Wilson added, that had General Marshall waited just 24 hours for the restraining instructions from London to arrive, history would be otherwise. But, Wilson continued, Marshall did not wait to invade Mosul, and so “laid the foundation stone of the future State of Iraq.”

From the Western view, Britain and France wanted to install a leader who would sign on the dotted line, thereby authorizing the oil and pipeline concessions that London and Paris had divided between them. Democracy, or a facsimile thereof, was needed to create a stabile environment for the oil to flow.

But Arab and Islamic nationalists in the newly invented Iraq did not want to share their land with infidel European Christians. Nor did they choose to share European values of democracy and pluralism, ideals that had never taken root in the Islamic Middle East. When Arabs hear the word “democracy,” they do not think of Jefferson doctrine, they hear a codeword for “we want your oil.”

Indeed, the Arab world only sided with the British against the Turks in WWI as a mere expedience to obtain their national independence. Arab nationalists were willing then to speak the lingo of democratic values and trade access to cheap oil, which was worthless to them. In turn, the British were willing to blithely promise any variant of Arab national independence for that oil. But when the British liberated Mesopotamia—and then stayed on throughout the twenties as occupiers, the betrayed Iraqis exploded with terror raids, burning, bombing, kidnapping and massacring westerners, including those sent to commercially develop the land and its waterways.

Islamic militants throughout history have never hesitated to terrorize those they deemed enemies who fell within their grasp, be they Assyrians, Shiites, Armenians, Europeans or Jews.

The outraged British response to insurgent horrors was aerial bombardment to shock and awe the villages. But the Iraqi violence persisted--as did the British resolve to combat it with troops and tanks. Once again, Western involvement was tied to the thirst for the oil wealth of Iraq, and that thirst commanded. Cycles of escalation and illusory temporary ceasefires followed. But the rage and confrontation among the people of Iraq never went away.

After WWI, the British and the French, becoming ever more dependent upon oil, engineered a secret petroleum pact, sanctioned by the League of Nations, which divided up oil drilling and pipeline rights in Syria and Iraq. The oil pact was announced at San Remo the same day the League of Nations granted mandates to Britain to rule oil-rich Iraq, and France to rule Syria where the pipelines would run to the Mediterranean. The British worked hard to instill democratic values in Iraq, thus creating a stable environment for the oil to flow. But it was a governance disaster because the people did not want democracy, and resented Western efforts to impose it. Genocide against minorities, ethnic cleansing, repression, despotism, corruption and neglect was the rule in Iraq for years, perpetuating another endless cycle of victimizing and victimization.

Major John Glubb, the British officer who organized the Arab Legion, complained bitterly in a letter to Whitehall. “We...imagined that we had bestowed on the Iraqis all these blessings of democracy… Nothing could be more undemocratic than the result. A handful of politicians obtained possession of the machinery of government, and all the elections were rigged.... In this process they all became very rich.”

For eight more decades, the West—now with the United States joining France and Britain—has tried to hang onto its oil lifeline in the Middle East, using our best diplomats, corporate surrogates and militaries. This addictive struggle has only further fueled the cycle of insurrection and now world terrorism from a people who resent our presence and resource exploitation, and have always understood better than anyone exactly why we are there. The Arabs have come to believe that all the talk of democratic values is just a shibboleth of the infidel.

It is not sand we crave in Iraq, it is oil.

America will never succeed in Iraq, if we once again naively expect democracy to take root there and flourish. What can possibly occur in the immediate future to transform that society that has not occurred for 7,000 years?

The only way to succeed in Iraq is to survive long enough to intelligently withdraw, and then rapidly—at breakneck speed—develop alternative energy resources to detach us from this far-off place where we are not wanted, where we should not be, and upon which our industrialized world is now dependent.

Copyright 2004 Edwin Black All Rights Reserved

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

And not because Iraqis are more violent than other peoples, even if it seems that way at times, especially in this sort of article. Also not because Americans are addicted to Mideast oil (which they basically have been in recent decades, but that is not why U.S. troops are in Iraq today).

Lasting stable democracy cannot come to Iraq as a result of American action (assuming that is what Black means by "succeed"), unless (a) Americans decide to spend sums of money dwarfing those spent so far and (b) the American perpetrators of current disaster are properly removed from office and prosecuted. It is time to impeach Rumsfeld, et. al. for war crimes and treason.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Enjoy your tour of duty in Iraq. See you when democracy has been established there, and the troops come home, in whatever decade that might be. Meanwhile some of the rest of us will read the New York Times and other reputable newspapers that have been around a lot longer than Paul Wolfowitz's cakewalk fantasizings. You can go back to your New York Post now and check out the babe on page 3.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

It is possible to be on the New York Times bestseller list without being an employee of that newspaper.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Good points Arnold, except that I think Pearl Harbor was quite some thousands of miles away from any Japanese "territorial waters". Futhermore, notwithstanding the provocations against them in 1941, Japan attacked America first. The historical ignomy of aggression remains with their genuinely hawkish military rulers, as it will with W and his chickenhawk necon associates. It is third-rate (and out of date) propaganda to pretend that Garner, Bremer or Chalabi were some kind of latter-day MacArthurs.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The "purposes of the United Nations", according to Article 1, section 1 are to "maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace" (

An act of military aggression, regardless of whether it is severely provoked (Japan, 1941) or preceeded by warnings (U.S., 2003) violates the very cornerstone of modern international civilization and cannot be justified except as a last resort or to prevent imminent humanitarian catastrophe, which was the case neither for the Japanese warmongers of '41 nor for the US chickenhawks of '03. This holds notwithstanding any claims or accusations about "imperialistic" motives.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

According to "Strageic Forecastng" in an assessment published yesterday the U.S. has already achieved its basic & orginal stragetic goal of itsinvasion of Iraq, by "reshapping the behavior of surrounding regimes, particularly the Saudis." But the U.S. switch to building democracy in Iraq is an instance of "mission creep," a diversion from the original goal and "...the United States has no national interest in the nature of Iraq's government or society."

Ergo, "Stratfor" is building a case for our bugging out from Iraq without imposing representative government there.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

The oil argument is silly. We'd no need to invade to Iraq to acquire its oil. We could have & could purchase oil in the marketplace at far less cost & trouble than it took to invade & conquer Iraq.

The more rational argument, posed by "Stratfor," is that we invaded Iraq with the intention of coercing surrounding regimes, partiularly the Saudis, to cooperate with us against al Qaeda. Therefore, although our stragic purpose was achieved, we've made the error of forgetting our original reason to invade Iraq by striving to impose democracy upon the country. Whatever form of gov't Iraq has is of no national interest to the U.S., as long as it avoids supporting al Qaeda.

Robert F. Koehler - 1/1/2005

All excellent points and I am in total agreement with Stratfor and founder Mr. Friedman's brilliant analysis. The shame and sorrow of it is that he and others of similar competence are not in positions of power and authority in the US government.

Take the analysis deeper and ask yourself why does Stratfor see al Qaeda as the chief and most dangerous threat to the west and the USA? That corporate group was among the very few right from the start that recognized the significance of Osama's movement as an organized and deadly "insurgency" fiercely committed to two goals. Driving all infidels from the holy realms of the Umma and the resurrection of an Islamic Caliphate or empire. But Osama's greatest obstacle was not fighting us as much as the disbelief and refusal among Muslims to fight an offensive jihadist war against the west in the absence of a Caliph to authorize it. Osama solved that minor inconvenience by slaying several thousand Americans in New York and sucker punched the USA into the heart of the Islamic world that inspires untold thousands to rally under the banners of defensive jihad that is every living Muslims duty.

As Strafor says we have battled al Qaeda to a stalemate but bungling & stupidity by the chief executive and his minions is leading the west and our nation to defeat and disaster if they continue following pie in the sky policies. You may ask yourself what would the rise of an Islamic Caliphate straddled across the worlds primary reserves of petroleum mean to the west and America if al Qaeda succeeds? Your trust and faith in market mechanisms will be meaningless because oil would be used as a an economic weapon against the very heart of America and its way of life. Its for nothing that Cheney remarked that: "The American Way of Life is non-negotiable."

Though Stratfor's analysis has broader currency among foreign policy elites there are still others who refuse it or remain blind to it either because of ideology or other half baked motives. Some continue to pooh-pooh that al Qaeda was, now or could ever be a threat to the west. Another favorite among the minimalists are that al Qaeda has been crushed and fatally wounded, driven from its sanctuaries and too organizationally impotent or finished to be a danger to the west. The problem with these nay sayers is that they have been remorselessly and stupendously wrong across the board and diverted our limited diplomatic, military and economic resources towards insane crusades that have gained us little, if not nothing against the real enemy.

Unfortunately we cannot retreat from Iraq because our real enemy will follow us wherever we draw a defensive line simply because this is a war to the death. Stratfor's suggestions I have read in similar forms from analysts such as Anthony Cordesman and Karen Kwaitkowski as much as a year ago. Considering the evolving character of the war in Iraq its probably the only viable move we got in the book. And wannabe top gun Bush had best heed Stratfor's prescient advise:

"If Bush has trouble doing this, he should conjure up Lyndon Johnson's ghost, wandering restlessly in the White House, and imagine how Johnson would have been remembered if he had told Robert McNamara to get lost in 1966."

Robert F. Koehler - 12/31/2004

As much as I disprove of Mr. Black's views I see nothing in his essay to warrant a charge of racism. Nor would I take exception with his observation: "It is not sand we crave in Iraq, it is oil." For what other reason would Iraq be of such geo-political significance and a vital US national security interest that would dictate our conquest of the country. And please spare me the making the world safe for democracy line. That's an even worse political justification than the phony clap-trap & jingoism about weapons of mass destruction.

US success in Iraq does not depend upon the Iraqis but upon intelligent and rational grand strategy & policy making in D.C. The score so far on that is zero and staying the course as we have been playing it will result in greater failures than what the US has experienced to date.

Robert F. Koehler - 12/31/2004

First of all Mr. Black wrongly conflates civilization with Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods and cultures, let alone casting despicably upon historic Mesopotamia's legitimate claim to being the Cradle of Civilization simply because of "violence" & "conflict." Where in all the regions of the world has not tragedy and suffering due to tyranny, war, ignorance and all the lesser angels of men's nature at some time or another not ruled? Not even America can claim exemption or innocence.

The essay than proceeds into another churning manufactory of recent historical causes & events that have been enunciated and preached in adnauseam. These endless emotive characterizations of the past are endlessly provided as the grounds & justification to go yella and cut & run by lefties and hate crazed demo partisans of all persuasions with no regard to consequences. There are a few individuals in the anti-war movement who have got brains and are worth listening to but Mr. Blacks essay leads me to conclude he is not one of them.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/31/2004

Mr Siegler,

It is well-known, though sad fact of life, that there is nothing that can be proved to folks that use
the die-hard axiom: Americans - good guys (except the left ones), no matter what, the rest - is good or bad depending on how they relate to Americans.

Edward Siegler - 12/31/2004

Black's assertion that the Iraqis didn't want democracy in the early part of the 20th century is both questionable and irrelevant to Iraq today. There is little doubt that Iraqis today want democracy, the question is whether they can attain it in the face of aspiring autocrats and looming civil war. Surveys show that the strong majority of Iraqis intend to vote. It is only a small minority of Sunni Baathists and related thugs that wish to prevent this. The Kurdish region of Iraq has been evolving along democratic lines for years. Along with the Shiite population, which also aspires toward democracy, they account for 80% of Iraq's population.

The article amazingly fails to mention that the Sunni dominance of the country dates back to the period of British influence in the 20's. The people then were exploited by their leadership and not given a voice. Black somehow conflates this with Iraqis "not wanting democracy." He also fails to mention the Baath party's ties to the Nazis and the fact that it was modeled along Nazi lines. Instead he concentrates on the Western desire for oil, when the Middle East was hardly the world's main source of this commodity in the 1920's. The U.S. was well on its way to achieving this status at the time.

If Iraq falls back into dictatorship it is the Iraqi people who will pay the price. Fortunately most signs indicate that they do not want this to happen. But it borders on racism to imply that Arabs are not capable of living in free societies.

Edward Siegler - 12/31/2004

Equating Pearl Harbor with the invasion of Iraq is one of the biggest howlers of '04. Thanks for the laughs, guys. This assertion is almost as good as the one about Hitler's concentration camps really being for the resettlement of displaced persons with the deaths being caused by the deprivation and damage that resulted from American and British air raids.

Arnold S., if you want to make the case that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes you're supposed to claim that Japan was trying to surrender at the time but that America prevented her from doing so in order to create an opportunity to use the atomic bomb and intimidate the Soviets. This is about as credible as the assertions about Hitler's camps but it might make you sound good to those who are ignorant of this period in history.

As far as the U.N. goes, how do you explain its intervention in Korea, the first Gulf War and its authorization to use force against Iraq in '03? So North Korea didn't invade the South and Iraq didn't conquer Kuwait out of "imperialistic" motives?

By the way, there are about 1 billion Chinese that would beg to differ with your assessment about Japan during World War II. I'd like to see how you would explain to them why the 10 million Chinese murdered by the Japanese during this time equates somehow with American actions. Good luck.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/30/2004

Peter, I apologize for stupid mistake about the location
of Pearl Harbor, but that doesn't change the main pathos
of my point, i.e. that the war between USA and Japan was mutually imperialistic war, i.e. the US was pursuing
largely the same goals as Japan: of extending its economic and political power thousands of miles away from its national borders; along, acting esentially the same way as Japan, albeit using much more sophisticated weaponry, instead of practically menual mass slaughter of their "enemies" by Japanese, against civilian population.
(One of the most outstanding achievements of Western civilizations propaganda machine in the 20th century was to implant firm belief into the heads of their populations that, e.g. "rape of Nanking" was a horrendous war crime, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki was just a demonstration of technological supremacy of one nation over another. After all, the hands of the US pilots weren't covered with blood after the bombing, weren't they?)
It is not to say that the Japan would not do the same, possesing that kind of weaponry, on the contrary - I'm sure they would - but they didn't and this country did...
As for your remark about who attacked whom first, the logic of the situation drives me ask: did Japan (its imperialistic designs aside) has the right for the preemptive strike, if being sufficiently and really (not to the extent Iraq, or Cuba, or Grenada or South Vietnam "threatened" the US) threatened and wasn't it?
Could Japanese realize that the US seeked military confrontation, of course on its own "conditions", and just decided to deprive the US of the advantage of the first strike?

John H. Lederer - 12/29/2004

I don't know, after making it through the horrors of the Afghanistan winter, surviving the country that defeated the Britsh and Russia, failing to have 10,000 casualties in Afghanistan, not having been destroyed by chemical warfare or biolgical warfare in Iraq, gotten out of a quagmire on the way to Baghdad, not having had the fedayeen cut our supply lines, not having had our offensive destroyed by Turkish intransgence, not suffering humiliating defeat in the urban warfare of Baghdad (yes, I know, still happening), not having Islamic fundamentalists retake power in Kabul, not having had widespread attacks in the United States, not having open warfare between the Kurds and the Iraqis, nor between the Sunnis and Shiites, ....

you probably are right. We are doomed.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/29/2004

Actually, Mr Harris I can not only say Japan, but to remind you something about it too (on condition you will demonstrate it is possible to debate with the one who evidently made up his mind before the presentation of facts and arguments).
Japan was first PROVOKED into war agaanst USA (this fact
has been known for decades by now and undeniably proved
by the memos from the American govermental archives and
the infamous exchanges between President Roosvelt and his
close associates), then its cities were mercilessly bombed, though Japanese didn't drop a single bomb on the American territory (just for military strike at the military target - US fleet that was "peacefully" stationed near the Japanese territorial waters) then, when it was already factually defeated by all parameters, and according to the overwhelming majority of the world's military analysts, forced into military, political and economical submission by the "brighter than thousand suns" terroristic display of the newly acquired by the US nuclear capability (since then continually complaining that one or another "evildoers" planned nuclear attack against this poor defenseless country - with an unparallel violence toward logic and facts!), and finally
up to now maintaining its non-joking military presence and factually owning Okinawa despite furious and numerous
protests of millions of "ungrateful" Japanese.
So, along with Japan, how about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and
You can call one liberal or red, but facts of history is
stubborn thing...
There is no absolute truth, but there is definitely factual and concrete thruth, and no "opinions" can shake
its proving, logical power.

christopher noel pitts - 12/29/2004

You're right of course Russ. Let's just show those crazy liberals in January when elections are held and peace comes to Iraq, and eventually the entire Middle East...

Just look at all the great progress we have made just recently:
1. The ACLU circulated memos, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that suggest President George W. Bush directly authorized torture against detainees in Iraq.[ACLU]
2. Families returned to the bombed-out city of Falluja and found little clean water.
3. A poll showed that 56 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war is “not worth fighting.”[Washington Post]
4. Another poll showed that 44 percent of Americans believe that Muslims should have their civil liberties curtailed.
5. 27 percent favor registration of Muslims.
6. 29 percent believe that law enforcement agencies should infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations.
7. A third poll showed that three-quarters of Iraqis intend to vote in upcoming elections; 41 percent incorrectly believe that they are voting for an Iraqi president.[]
8. That the number of starving Iraqi children has nearly doubled in the last 21 months.[USA Today]
9. Rumsfeld, under criticism for having his condolence letters to the families of dead American soldiers signed by an automatic pen, said he stays “awake at night for concern for those at risk.”[SFGate]

See, you crazy liberals can just shut it. Look at all our "progress." Japan, eat your heart out.

Russ Harris - 12/29/2004

Ahh, a clueless Bush hater whines the following: "Lasting stable democracy cannot come to Iraq as a result of American action (assuming that is what Black means by "succeed"), unless (a) Americans decide to spend sums of money dwarfing those spent so far and (b) the American perpetrators of current disaster are properly removed from office and prosecuted"...

Can you say Japan?

Leave it to a liberal fool to whine and not do his homework...

Russ Harris - 12/29/2004

Why anyone who claims to be a thinking human being would believe anything a fool working for the New York Times is beyond me...

Hasn't the track record of the New York Times, as sleazy an apologist rag liberals could ever hope for speak for itself?

How often does someone need to be lied to before one considers the source?

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