Echo of History: Victor, Beware

Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

Contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington these days, history did not begin on Sept. 11, 2001 -- certainly not the history of Western attempts to put Iraq right.

A conquering British army, largely made up of Indian conscripts, marched into Baghdad in 1917 near the end of World War I. The advance against the tottering Ottoman forces had been costly in men and material, but the commander of British forces, Lt. Gen. Sir Stanley Maude, was gracious and magnanimous in victory.

U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands the army that soon will enter battle, would do well to recall Maude’s proclamation of March 19, 1917, “to the people of Baghdad.” Maude’s words capture the spirit of Franks’ expected remarks when he declares victory, but the problems that arose after the British victory point to the pitfalls that may await the American general. “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators,” Maude declared. “It is [Britain’s] wish that you should prosper even as in the past, when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science and art, and when Baghdad city was one of the wonders of the world.”

The commitments embodied in Maude’s gracious words never materialized. His proclamation was drafted by Sir Mark Sykes, later the co-author of an audacious, secret treaty that carved up Iraq and much of the Middle East between the war’s victors -- London and Paris. In Iraq, as in Jordan, Palestine and Syria, regimes were not chosen democratically. They were imposed by the victors. Leaders were rewarded for their loyalty to the West and punished when they rebelled.


The kingdoms and monarchies established by the European democracies were plagued by instability. The British presence in Iraq soon was under assault by political and popular forces that opposed foreign rule.

By the early 1930s, Iraq had suffered the first of many military coups. It was this troubled legacy of British power in Baghdad that ultimately helped to create and sustain the Baath Party -- and Saddam Hussein.

If Maude were alive today, one wonders whether, almost 100 years after his military triumph, he would warn Franks about the ambiguous fruits of victory.