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Niall Ferguson: Don't Think Vietnam, Think Iraq Under British Rule

Niall Ferguson, in the NYT (April 18, 2004):

From Ted Kennedy to the cover of Newsweek, we are being warned that Iraq has turned into a quagmire, George W. Bush's Vietnam. Learning from history is well and good, but such talk illustrates the dangers of learning from the wrong history. To understand what is going on in Iraq today, Americans need to go back to 1920, not 1970. And they need to get over the American inhibition about learning from non-American history.

President Bush, too, seems to miss the point. "We're not an imperial power," he insisted in his press conference on Tuesday. Trouble is, what he is trying to do in Iraq — and what is going wrong — look uncannily familiar to anyone who knows some British imperial history. Iraq had the distinction of being one of our last and shortest-lived colonies. This isn't 'Nam II — it's a rerun of the British experience of compromised colonization. When Mr. Bush met Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain on Friday, the uninvited guest at the press conference — which touched not only on Iraq but also on Palestine, Cyprus and even Northern Ireland — was the ghost of empire past.

First, let's dispense with Vietnam. In South Vietnam, the United States was propping up an existing government, whereas in Iraq it has attempted outright "regime change," just as Britain did at the end of World War I by driving the Ottoman Turks out of the country. "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," declared Gen. Frederick Stanley Maude — a line that could equally well have come from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this time last year. By the summer of 1920, however, the self-styled liberators faced a full-blown revolt.

A revolt against colonial rule is not the same as a war. Vietnam was a war. Although the American presence grew gradually, it reached a peak of nearly half a million troops by the end of the 1960's; altogether 3.4 million service personnel served in the Southeast Asian theater. By comparison, there are just 134,000 American troops in Iraq today — almost as many men as the British had in Iraq in 1920. Then as now, the enemy consisted of undisciplined militias. There were no regular army forces helping them the way the North Vietnamese supported the Vietcong.

What lessons can Americans learn from the revolt of 1920? The first is that this crisis was almost inevitable. 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. The revolt stretched as far north as the Kurdish city of Kirkuk and as far south as Samawah, where British forces were trapped (and where Japanese troops, facing a hostage crisis, were holed up last week).

Then, as now, the rebels systematically sought to disrupt the occupiers' communications — then by attacking railways and telegraph lines, today by ambushing convoys. British troops and civilians were besieged, just as hostages are being held today. Then as now, much of the violence was more symbolic than strategically significant — British bodies were mutilated, much as American bodies were at Falluja. By August of 1920 the situation was so desperate that the general in charge appealed to London not only for reinforcements but also for chemical weapons (mustard gas bombs or shells), though these turned out to be unavailable.

And this brings us to the second lesson the United States needs to learn from the British experience. Putting this rebellion down will require severity. In 1920, the British eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions. It was not pretty. Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the air force, was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy pilots and vengeful ground troops. And despite their overwhelming technological superiority, British forces still suffered more than 2,000 dead and wounded....

The lessons of empire are not the kind of lessons Americans like to learn. It's more comforting to go on denying that America is in the empire business. But the time has come to get real. Iraqis themselves will be the biggest losers if the United States cuts and runs. Fear of the wrong quagmire could consign them to a terrible hell.