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How Mesopotamia Became Iraq (and Why It Matters)

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “On the Law of Nations,” to be published on Sept. 12 by Harvard University Press, is the companion, if not quite the sequel, to his 1988 “Came the Revolution: Argument in the Reagan Era” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). The two deal, respectively, with foreign and domestic affairs. Both claim that the conservatism of the Reagan-Bush years has been the wreckage, not the restoration, of American traditions. Moynihan argues, in effect, that as the trillion-dollar deficit is to genuine fiscal conservatism, so a new contempt for international law in, for example, the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors is to genuine diplomatic conservatism.

Deference to international law being commonly located among the liberal fatuosities, Moynihan begins preemptively by locating it squarely in the founding generation of the American republic. The oldest commentary on the American legal system, James Kent’s 1826 “Commentaries on American Law,” begins, Moynihan points out, by declaring its allegiance to international law:

“When the United States ceased to be a part of the British Empire, and assumed the character of an independent nation, they became subject to that system of rules which reason, morality, and custom had established among the civilized nations of Europe, as their public law. . . . The faithful observance of this law is essential to national character and to the happiness of mankind.”

International law changes as much as national law, however, and it is the sea change that occurred after World War I that most concerns Moynihan, for it was then that--no matter if prematurely and ineptly--Woodrow Wilson forced the principle of self-determination onto the international legal agenda. “No other man in the history of the world,” Moynihan writes, "--and certainly none other in our century--so engaged the passions and hopes of mankind as Wilson did in those months of 1918 and 1919. The idea of a world ruled by law is as old, almost, as the idea of law itself. But it was only with the latter part of the 19th Century that it came to be seen as a practical vision and as a reasonable choice that governments might make in determining their own behavior.”

Moynihan echoes John Maynard Keynes: “When President Wilson left Washington he enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence through the world unequaled in history.” But Keynes’ line came in the great economist’s 1920 account of how and why Wilson failed. Wilson suffered a disabling stroke while campaigning at home for his vision, but innumerable problems had doomed it long before then. David Lloyd George would later write: “The only faculty that remained unimpaired to the end . . . was his abnormal stubbornness.”

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Lloyd George, the canniest of political and diplomatic in-fighters, got nearly everything that he wanted for Britain after World War I; Wilson--repudiated at home and abroad--got almost nothing that he wanted. And yet if Lloyd George won on the ground, Wilson won in the air, or as we might better say, in the atmosphere. The notion of legitimacy--the legitimacy of a monarch, an empire, a regime, a military occupation--had already begun to change when Wilson set sail for Europe, the first sitting American President ever to do so, but that notion was to change more rapidly and drastically because of him.

“On the Law of Nations” is thoughtful and timely, even as Moynihan himself is the refutation of the claim that the United States produces no politicians capable of expressing original thought in their own, unghosted words. I mention the book, however, not for full review but because its very appearance is a small victory for Wilson at a moment when we are facing in Iraq one of the long-term consequences of the visionary President’s great defeat. And that defeat, in turn, is splendidly chronicled in David Fromkin’s “A Peace to End All Peace: Creating a Modern Middle East 1914-1922" (Henry Holt), one of the finalists for this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history (see Pages 8-9).

Times employees may not be book prize judges, but my admiration for Fromkin’s book became a matter of record as early as last February when I borrowed from it to write on the disturbances in Azerbaijan. Fromkin has written--fascinatingly, I think--on the Ottoman Empire’s 11th-hour attempt to take Turkic Central Asia from the newborn Soviet Union. He makes that part of the Soviet nationalities question seem in a new way both an international and an ideological/religious question.

Fromkin is equally illuminating in telling the story of the making of modern Iraq. Reading him, one begins to guess why, at a time when Saddam Hussein’s great opponent is ostensibly the United States, the tyrant should have chosen to have the first of his notorious televised chats with British rather than American children. As subsequent news stories have made clear, that chat played rather differently in the Arab and the Western world. The history of Britain in Iraq may explain why.

Before defeating the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Britain suffered two hideous defeats. One, the better known of the two, was at Gallipoli, on the Dardanelles at the approach to Constantinople. The other was at Kut el-Amara on the Tigris River in what is now Iraq. An army sent out from British India marched on Baghdad but was stopped, and perished nearly to the last man in 1916. It was not until a year later, on March 11, 1917, that a second British-Indian invasion, under Maj. Gen. Stanley Maude, succeeded in capturing Baghdad. That victory, a turning point in Britain’s war against the Turks, was for the local Arab population simply a foreign invasion.

Unlike some other parts of the Islamic world, Mesopotamia had not been Christian but Zoroastrian before it became Muslim. Centuries later, the Crusaders, stopping at the Holy Land, never made it to Baghdad’s narrow streets. One of the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia was thus one of the very last areas to fall to the 400-year expansion of the European, Christian powers. And as Fromkin explains, resistance to the European invader began there immediately and forcefully.

The British had sought from early in World War I to incite Arab nationalism against the Ottoman Empire. Their dream was to transfer the allegiance of the Arabs as Muslims from the Ottoman sultan, traditionally honored as the caliph or successor to Muhammad, to Hussein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca and a British client. As for the temporal power of the Turks, the British sought to claim this for themselves. Broadly, their vision was of the transformation of the Arab world into a superior version of British India, religion and culture flourishing under the firm but fair British hand. In a famous line, T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” said: “My own ambition is that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony.”

The Arabs greeted the British offer with indifference at best and not infrequently with active hostility. Hussein’s son, Feisal, working with Lawrence and other British military men, did raise an Arab legion that fought the Turks in Transjordan; but other Arabs--notably in Baghdad--remained loyal to the Turks to the end.

After the conquest of Baghdad, Sir Mark Sykes issued a proclamation that spoke, Fromkin says, “in high-flown phrases of liberation and freedom” and “pointed, however vaguely, toward an Arab Middle Eastern confederation under the leadership of King Hussein.” But the promise was pure propaganda. What followed was direct rule from Britain and British India: “Gen. Maude, in whose name the Sykes proclamation had been issued, was put in the position of preaching self-rule while discouraging its practice. . . . Having volunteered what sounded like a pledge of independence to an area that had not asked for it, the military and civil authorities of the occupying power then proceeded to withhold it.”

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the rest of the Arab world, the general uprising that Britain had so long hoped for finally came about--against Britain herself. The British blamed Wilson, the Bolsheviks, the Turks, the Zionists--in every case with some reason. Then as now, the Middle East was prey to a host of outside influences. What they missed, Fromkin says, was the central fact that linked myriad otherwise unconnected disturbances: Arab Muslims simply were unwilling to be ruled by this European, Christian, culturally alien power.

In no area of the Arab world was the rejection of British rule more violent, more immediate or more widespread than in Mesopotamia. Despite this, Lloyd George managed to keep Mesopotamia completely off the agenda of the peace conferences that followed the war, diverting Woodrow Wilson’s attention, Fromkin says, to the question of whether Feisal or the French should rule in Syria.

That decision eventually went in favor of the French, but in compensation, on Aug. 23, 1921, the British installed Feisal as king of Mesopotamia, changing the official name of the country at that time to Iraq, an Arabic word which, Fromkin says, means “well-rooted country.”

Just how well-rooted was this country? Winston Churchill, who succeeded Lloyd George as British architect of the Arab future, seriously considered returning not just Iraq but all of Britain’s Arab conquests to the Turks: Creating an Arab version of British India called for more investment, military and civilian, than Britain could afford.

Churchill’s astounding giveback never came about. Moreover, Feisal’s kingdom lasted longer than perhaps even Churchill might have hoped: Feisal’s grandson, Feisal II, was not overthrown until 1958. And yet, have Iraq’s post-1958 military strongmen been more legitimate than its British-imposed monarchs? It is claimed that long before the current crisis, Saddam Hussein was afraid to leave his country for fear of overthrow. The problem may be in the land as much as in the man.

And the legitimacy problem is in any event not Saddam’s alone. The al-Sabbah ruling family of Kuwait owes its long reign (and its borders) in good measure to the British, who established a protectorate there in 1897 and left only in 1961. The Saudis of Arabia and the Hashemites of Jordan also are former British clients who have become American clients. A colonial history might not seem in itself to raise doubts about legitimacy, but in this regard the Middle East may be different.

Though the world may now know what the British imperialists forgot--namely, that for Muslims religion and politics are inseparable--a key corollary is less generally recognized: Unless a Muslim nation’s leader can claim full Islamic legitimacy, the very nation he would rule may be seen as politically illegitimate.

Fromkin puts it this way: “In the Middle East there is no sense of legitimacy-- no agreement on the rules of the game--and no belief universally shared in the region, that within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such. In that sense, successors to the Ottoman sultans have not yet been permanently installed, even though between 1919 and 1922 installing them was what the Allies believed themselves to be doing.”

In 1922 what legitimated the new countries and their leaders in Western eyes was international law, but the Arabs--upon whom these countries and these leaders were imposed--had at the time little reason to regard international law as their law. Do they yet?

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that the current American intervention brings about an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a regime more to our liking in Baghdad. The lesson of Fromkin’s book is that at that point our money and blood will not have purchased legitimacy or stability for the present system of Arab nation-states, but only a little more time before the next occasion arises for Arab rejection and Western rescue of that system.

The suggestion in Moynihan’s book (whether or not he himself would quite see it this way) is that if there is any authentic position for the United States to take in the Middle East, it can only be the Wilsonian position: international law deepened and strengthened by the full integration--at whatever initial cost--of the principle of self-determination. Only then will the Arabs--all the Arabs, not just the royal families--believe that international law secures their safety as well as ours. Only then will they find a middle course between the brutality of future Saddam Husseins and the futility of future George Bushes.


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