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December 26, 2003
David Fromkin: Be Careful What You Wish For

David Fromkin, who wrote a terrific book on Middle Eastern history over the past century titled "A Peace to End All Peace" (on my book list on the left, and you should buy it), wrote an article for today's Los Angeles Times which intends to warn the US about repeating Britain's mistakes in Iraq:

When the war ended, in 1918, the victorious British found themselves in possession, among other things, of the three Ottoman provinces that were later merged to form a single unitary state that was to be called Iraq.

In 1918 and 1919, its hour of triumph, the British Empire garrisoned the Middle East with an army of a million men. No other significant military force in the region could dispute Britain's mastery. Iraq's future seemingly was for Britain to determine. It is from Britain's experience in that respect that Americans entering the year 2004 have so much to learn.

Fromkin's piece reviews the early history of Iraq and Britain's failure to finish the job in Iraq. In a way, this article has something to offer both proponents and opponents of the war, at least on practical grounds. Opponents can argue the futility of building a Western-style nation from fragmented Middle Eastern provinces and a certain inevitability of putative allies in the region to rebel against their sponsors. Proponents can argue for an extended military mission to ensure and protect the development of a friendly government.

However, 2003 is not 1918, and we are not the colonial British of yesteryear -- in fact, the British today aren't the colonial British of yesteryear, either. In reading Fromkin's book and comparing it to his necessarily truncated history today (after all, the Times can't reprint the entire last third of his book in its op-ed section), two major differences between yesterday and today are clear. In 1918, the British attempted to install a monarchy, choosing a military ally with little real attachment to the people of Mesopotamia, for their wider ambitions in Asia Minor. Prince Faisal had little support amongst the strangers in his new land for his rule, and the only way he could establish his authority was to unite the three provinces and the tribes on the one issue that they all supported: the end of British colonial rule. The people in the new nation of Iraq saw that Britain historically had conquered and stayed on to rule, either directly or through a protectorate, and did not want to experience that first-hand.

The second major difference, related to the first, was that Faisal was forced upon Iraq without much input from the Iraqis themselves. This may be somewhat parallel to the Iraqi Governing Council today, but the difference is that the IGC is a temporary executive, and it also reflects a variety of Iraqi voices and viewpoints. The IGC's function is to establish the democratic institutions that will ensure that Iraqis are able to govern themselves, not be straitjacketed by a monarchy. While democracies often will produce leaders who we find less friendly to our interests than we would like -- France being the prime example these days -- the point in 2003 is not to install a puppet government that we can exploit, as it was in 1918. Democracy is an end in itself, in order to eliminate the oppression that breeds extremism and terrorism.

Fromkin raises several good points in this article, especially questioning our commitment to sticking around until the mission is really accomplished. Certainly, we also need to be careful to choose our friends wisely, and studying the history of this region and taking the proper lessons from it. It seems to me that in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, the US and UK have already demonstrated a basic grasp of history by refusing to take the easy route of reinstalling monarchies and attempting the more difficult task of building democracies in areas where none existed before. Will we make mistakes? Certainly, but we are fortunate to have David Fromkin with us to point out the land mines ahead of time, and hopefully we will avoid the most costly of them.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 26, 2003 9:59 AM

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