With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Frank Rich: It's 1920's Iraq All Over Again

Frank Rich, in the NYT (April 18, 2004):

The most apt movie for this moment just may be David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia." Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton ambassador to the United Nations whose foreign service career began in Vietnam, said to me last week, "That's the image everyone I've talked to who saw the movie has in his head right now."

What Mr. Holbrooke is referring to is the story's mordant conclusion. The Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, abetted by the heroic British liaison officer T. E. Lawrence and guerrilla tactics, has succeeded. The shotgun mandating of the modern state of Iraq, by the League of Nations in 1920, is just a few years away. But as the local leaders gather in an Arab council, a tentative exercise in self-government, there is nothing but squabbling, even as power outages and public-health outrages roil the populace. "I didn't come here to watch a tribal bloodbath," says Peter O'Toole, as Lawrence, earlier in the movie when first encountering the internecine warfare of the Arab leaders he admired. But the bloodbath continued — and now that we've ended Saddam's savage grip on Iraq, it has predictably picked up where it left off. Only Americans have usurped the British as the primary targets in the crossfire of an undying civil war.

It was last weekend, after I watched "Lawrence" again for the first time in years, that L. Paul Bremer was asked by Tim Russert to whom we would turn over the keys in Iraq on June 30, and gave his now immortal answer: "Well, that's a good question." We don't have a clue, and in part that's because we have no memory.

As the historian Niall Ferguson points out in his new book, "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire," President Bush's promise to Iraqis of "a peaceful and representative government" in place of Saddam's brutal regime was an uncanny, if unconscious, replay of what the British commander who occupied Baghdad in 1917 told the people of what was then still Mesopotamia. "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," Gen. F. S. Maude said back then, expressing the desire that his forces would help the populace build their own governmental institutions.

Iraq did not, however, give birth to an indigenous form of self-government. The country was run instead by a Bremer-like civil commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson, for three often violent years. He and his deputy, Mr. Ferguson writes, "drew up a scheme for a unitary Iraqi state with almost no local consultation, simply ignoring those who advised against yoking together Assyria and Babylonia, Sunni and Shia." Eventually a British-style constitutional monarchy was installed, leading to decades of tumult and coups. By the time the revolution of 1958 overthrew the monarchy, the Baath party and Saddam were lurking in the wings.

To revisit "Lawrence" and the history it dramatizes in embryo is to feel not only déjà vu but also a roaring anger at the American arrogance and ignorance that has led to the current nightmare. Condoleezza Rice's use of the word "historical" to describe the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential briefing on Osama bin Laden was not the only tipoff to her limited understanding of history. In the opening filibuster of her testimony, she invoked the Lusitania, Hitler's rise and Pearl Harbor as analogues of 9/11 — an asymmetrical comparison that blurs the distinctions between nations' acts of war and the stateless conspiracies of modern terrorists. Apparently the administration's understanding of British colonial history in the Middle East is no sharper. Though it might have been impossible to prevent the 9/11 attacks, it would have been possible to avoid what's happening in Iraq now had anyone heeded the past. However much the current crisis may be a function of a military bungle like Donald Rumsfeld's inadequate deployment of troops or the diplomatic failure to attract a proper coalition, it is above all else the product of cultural hubris.