Tough Lessons of Iraq Were Already in the History Books

Suppose that George W. Bush and Tony Blair could have seen clearly before the invasion the consequences of the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, occupy Iraq and transform its government. What if they had uncovered many of the obstacles and problems U.S. and British military forces would encounter in attempting to quell the ensuing violence and restore stability?

Would the United States still have moved ahead so confidently, assuming that our troops would be greeted by admiring Iraqis who would unite to form a government that would be a model of democracy for the Middle East?

The real tragedy of our policy is that if the U.S. president and the British prime minister had simply read the history of the British occupation of Iraq in the last century, they would have discovered most of the complexities with which we now struggle.

The Bush administration needed to go no further than the Library of Congress online edition of the Federal Research Division's "Iraq: A Country Study" to learn of eerie similarities between the British Mandate and the current situation. The experience of the British in Iraq from the 1920s to the late 1950s offers a haunting glimpse into many of the historical trends that shaped events almost a century later.

When British Maj. Gen. Sir Stanley Maude led his forces into Baghdad in 1917 -- after Britain reached an agreement with France to divide the former Ottoman Empire into their own spheres of influence in the Middle East -- he, like current American leaders, assured the Iraqis that "our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators."

Few Iraqis believed the promise or welcomed the occupiers. Almost immediately, Sunni and Shiite tribal militias struck violently in Baghdad and Basra against the occupation forces. The British dismissed and alienated -- and later reinstated -- the largely Sunni bureaucracy and left Shiites fearing subjugation. Kurds, hoping for independence, mobilized to protect themselves. The British created a provisional Iraqi government that was largely ineffective because it was so thoroughly distrusted by Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

The British established a monarchy, created an Iraqi army and forced the Kurds and their extensive oil resources into the new Iraq.

Although Iraq became a sovereign state, it was indirectly controlled by the British, whose many advisers and military bases could not forge a stable nation. Throughout the 1930s Iraq was plagued by ethnic and religious violence. A military coup displaced the parliament in 1936, but continuing resistance by provincial militias and nationalist groups led to another coup in 1941 against the monarchy.

A third coup, in 1958, ended British colonialism in Iraq but left behind a powerful military dictatorship controlled by the Baath Party, and with it all of the ethnic and religious enmities that underlie the violence, bloodshed and sectarian conflict that make the Bush administration's dreams of creating a democratic model for the Middle East a nightmare for both the Iraqi people and American forces.

To insist that the civil war in Iraq today is simply a manifestation of global terrorism inspired by al-Qaeda misreads history and conditions on the ground. What is happening now has roots going back 100 years. "Staying the course" and increasing U.S. military forces to suppress a civil war that reflects long-festering hostilities among sectarian factions who do not trust each other or their foreign occupiers, and who fear control by one over the others, cannot shape a democratic Iraq.

History may not repeat itself, but it can speak to us about underlying causes of current events. We pay a high price for ignoring the past. It tells us that solutions to the current conflict must be political, not military. And if they are to be accepted, they must be worked out by the Iraqis themselves.

The danger now is that when Americans are forced out or decide to withdraw, we will leave behind either chaos or an Iraqi government dominated by one of the factions that will become as oppressive as the Baath dictatorship that forced the British to withdraw in 1958.

American military force will not create a democratic Iraq. We need a new, more historically informed and diplomatically sophisticated strategy for the Middle East. Listening to history and facing current realities are prerequisites for formulating that policy.

Dennis A. Rondinelli, senior research scholar at the Sanford Institute’s Duke Center for International Development and professor emeritus of international management at UNC-Chapel Hill.