A History Lesson
By Rashid Khalidi
24 November, 2004
people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which
it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked
into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués
are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than
we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than
the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record and may soon
be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.
Our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of
climate and supply are policing an immense area, paying dearly every
day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration
in Baghdad but the responsibility, in this case, is not on the army
which has acted only upon the request of the civil authorities."
T.E. Lawrence, The Sunday Times, August 1920
There is a small
City on one of the bends of the Euphrates that sticks out into the great
Syrian Desert. Its on an ancient trade route linking the oasis
towns of the Nejd province of what is today Saudi Arabia with the great
cities of Aleppo and Mosul to the north. It also is on the desert highway
between Baghdad and Amman. This city is a crossroads.
For millennia people
have been going up and down that north-south desert highway. The city
is like a seaport on that great desert, a place that binds together
people in what are today Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. People
in the city are linked by tribe, family or marriage to people in all
The ideas that came
out of the eastern part of Saudi Arabia in the late 18th Century, which
today we call Wahhabi ideas those of a man named Muhammad Ibn
Abd al-Wahhab took root in this city more than 200 years
ago. In other words, it is a place where what we would call fundamentalist
salafi, or Wahhabi ideas, have been well implanted for 10 generations.
This town also is
the place where in the spring of 1920, before T. E. Lawrence wrote the
above passage, the British discerned civil unrest.
The British sent
a renowned explorer and a senior colonial officer who had quelled unrest
in the corners of their empire, Lt. Col. Gerald Leachman, to master
this unruly corner of Iraq. Leachman was killed in an altercation with
a local leader named Shaykh Dhari. His death sparked a war that ended
up costing the lives of 10,000 Iraqis and more than 1,000 British and
Indian troops. To restore Iraq to their control, the British used massive
air power, bombing indiscriminately. That city is now called Fallujah.
grandson, today a prominent Iraqi cleric, helped to broker the end of
the U.S. Marine siege of Fallujah in April of this year. Fallujah thus
embodies the interrelated tribal, religious and national aspects of
The Bush administration
is not creating the world anew in the Middle East. It is waging a war
in a place where history really matters.
A change for
The United States
has been a major Middle Eastern power since 1933, when a group of U.S.
oil companies signed an exploration deal with Saudi Arabia. The United
States has been dominant in the Middle East since 1942, when American
troops first landed in North Africa and Iran. American troops have not
left the region since. In other words, they have been in different parts
of the Middle East for 62 years.
The United States
was once celebrated as a non-colonial, sometimes anti-colonial, power
in the Middle East, renowned for more than a century for its educational,
medical and charity efforts. Since the Cold War, however, the United
States has intervened increasingly in the regions internal affairs
and conflicts. Things have changed fundamentally for the worse with
the invasion and occupation of Iraq, particularly with the revelation
that the core pretexts offered by the administration for the invasion
were false. And particularly with growing Iraqi dissatisfaction with
the occupation and with the images of the hellish chaos broadcast regularly
everywhere in the world except in the United States thanks to
the excellent job done by the media in keeping the real human costs
of Iraq off our television screens.
The United States
is perceived as stepping into the boots of Western colonial occupiers,
still bitterly remembered from Morocco to Iran. The Bush administration
marched into Iraq proclaiming the very best of intentions while stubbornly
refusing to understand that in the eyes of most Iraqis and most others
in the Middle East it is actions, not proclaimed intentions, that count.
It does not matter what you say you are doing in Fallujah, where U.S.
troops just launched an attack after weeks of bombing. What matters
is what you are doing in Fallujahand what people see that you
Most Middle East
experts in the United States, both inside and outside the government,
have drawn on their knowledge of the cultures, languages, history, politics
of the Middle East and on their experience to conclude that
most Bush administration Middle East policies, whether in Iraq or Palestine,
are harmful to the interests of the United States and the peoples of
this region. A few of these experts have had the temerity to say so,
to the outrage of the Bush administration and its supporters, who are
committed to what I would call a fact-free, faith-based approach to
Middle East policymaking.
These experts predicted
that it would be difficult to occupy a vast, complex country like Iraq,
that serious resistance from a major part of the population was likely,
and that the invasion and occupation would complicate U.S. relations
with other countries in the region. It is clear today that all of these
fears were well founded.
After 20 months
of occupation, the United States continues to make the important decisions
in Iraq. Instead of control being exercised through the Coalition Provisional
Authority, it takes place through the largest U.S. embassy in the world
and its staff of more than 3,000. You can be sure that should the Iraqis
try to end the basing of U.S. troops, or try to tear up the contracts
with Halliburton and other U.S. companies, or take any other steps that
displease the Bush administration, they would be brought up short by
the U.S. viceroy, a.k.a. Ambassador John Negroponte.
We, and even more
so the Iraqi government and its people, are trapped in a nightmare with
no apparent end, in part because those experts who challenged neoconservative
fantasies about U.S. troops being received with rice and flowers simply
were not heeded. They warned that it is impossible to impose democracy
through force in Iraq. Mao Tse Tung said that political power grows
out of the barrel of a gun; he did not say democracy does. And it doesnt.
The stench of hypocrisy
rises when the United States, a nation supposedly committed to democratization
and reform, does not hesitate to embrace dictatorial, autocratic and
undemocratic regimes like those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia and
now even Libya, simply because they act in line with U.S. security concerns
or give lucrative contracts to U.S. businesses. The United States claims
to be acting in favor of democracy, yet embraces Qaddhafi! People in
the Middle East notice this gap between word and deed even if
Americans dont notice the things being done in our name.
The United States,
in fact, has a far from sterling record in promoting democracy in the
Middle East. Initially it started off on a better footing. It opposed
colonial rule and -promoted self-determination, as in President Wilsons
Fourteen Points after World War I. But when the United States returned
to the Middle East after World War II, it soon supported anti-democratic
regimes simply because they provided access to oil and military bases.
If you look carefully,
what the Bush administration seems to mean by democracy in the Middle
East is governments that do what the United States wants.
Conquer and plunder
Middle Eastern economics
is another area about which we hear very little in our media. Americans
may not be aware of it, but the wholesale theft of the property of the
Iraqi people through privatization was prominently reported all over
the Middle East. A recent case involved the handover of Iraqi Airways
to an investor group headed by a family with close ties to the Saddam
Hussein regime. The airline is worth $3 billion, because in addition
to valuable landing slots all over Europe and a few tattered airplanes,
Iraqi Airways owns the land on which most of the airports are built.
Such cases, and
there are many, cause deep anger against the United States, and evoke
bitter resistance to pressures for economic liberalization that people
in the region interpret as the looting of their countrys assets.
measures arouse deep suspicion in the Middle East, because of fears
that the regions primary asset, oil, may be next.
Here, too, history
is all-important. Since commercial quantities of oil were discovered
in the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century, decisions over pricing,
control and ownership of these valuable resources were largely in the
hands of giant Western oil companies. They decided prices. They decided
how much in taxes they would pay. They decided who controlled the local
governments. They decided how much oil would be produced. And they decided
everything else about oil, including conditions of exploration, production
In those seven decades
the people of the countries where this wealth was located obtained few
benefits from it. Only with the rise of OPEC and the nationalization
of the Middle East oil industries and the oil price rises in the 70s
did the situation change. Sadly, it was the oligarchs, the kleptocrats
and Western companies that benefited most from the increased prices.
Fears that they
will lose their resources shape much of the nationalism of the peoples
of the Middle East. And events in Iraq only enhance these fears.
By invading, occupying
and imposing a new regime on Iraq, the United States may be following,
intentionally or not, in the footsteps of the old Western colonial powersand
doing so in a region that within living memory ended a lengthy struggle
to expel colonial occupations. They fought from 1830 to 1962 to kick
out the French from Algeria. From 1882 to 1956 they fought to get the
British out of Egypt. Thats within the lifetime of every person
over 45 in the Middle East. Foreign troops on their soil against their
will is deeply familiar.