Features » November 12, 2004
A history lesson about the town we are currently destroying.
“The 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. It’s 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 these places.
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.
Shaykh Dhari’s 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 Iraq’s history.
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 worse
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 region’s 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 Fallujah—and what people see that you are doing.
Fact-free and faith-based
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 doesn’t.
The stench of hypocrisy rises when the United States, a nation supposedly com-mit-ted 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 don’t 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 Wilson’s 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 country’s assets.
These privatization measures arouse deep suspicion in the Middle East, because of fears that the region’s 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 and labor.
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 powers—and 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. That’s within the lifetime of every person over 45 in the Middle East. Foreign troops on their soil against their will is deeply familiar.
Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University and author, most recently, of Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East.