A 1930s Lesson in Stillborn Democracy

Joel Rayburn, an Army major, teaches history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

The agreement struck by Marine commanders in Fallouja to allow former retired generals and soldiers of Saddam Hussein’s army to police the city may stem from our rising impatience with the security situation in Iraq. For weeks, the standoffs in Fallouja and Najaf seemed to have pushed a growing number of increasingly restive Americans toward one of two conclusions: Either U.S. troops must leave Iraq as soon as possible or, if they remain, the Baathist-dominated army must be reconstituted to help stabilize the country.

Last month, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), invoking Vietnam, embraced the former, while two articles on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times last week favored the latter. Either idea, however, might abort the birth of democracy in Iraq. In the only other instance of nation-building in Iraq’s history, the British failure in the 1930s to nurture a viable democracy to maturity had grave consequences for both countries.

In 1932, the British terminated the League of Nations mandate they had undertaken in 1920 and restored Iraqi sovereignty. Pressured by an economic downturn and warnings of “imperial overstretch,” the British government withdrew the vast majority of its troops from Iraq, leaving the remainder at a few bases near Iraq’s oil fields; the British had concessionary oil rights for 75 years. The British administration in Baghdad gave way to a large embassy, roughly comparable to the one to be headed by John Negroponte after the U.S.-led coalition transfers sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government June 30. By treaty, the Iraqis were expected to consult the British ambassador, who outranked all other foreign diplomats, on foreign policy matters. The treaty obligated the British to help preserve Iraq’s constitutional government, even if that required returning British troops to Iraq.

This arrangement failed almost immediately. The British intentionally wrote Iraq’s constitution to give sweeping powers to King Faisal, a former ally, hero of the Arab revolt of World War I and expected underwriter of British interests in the country. But Faisal’s ill health and untimely death in 1933 left a political void that his young son and successor, Ghazi, could not fill. With the father dead, Iraq splintered along ethnic lines.


For three years, the majority Shiites of southern Iraq intermittently rebelled against the Sunni-dominated government and each time were crushed by the Sunni-led army. In the north, the army took vengeance on the Assyrian Christians, who had served as British troops under the mandate and were thus viewed by Iraqi nationalists as collaborators.

In Baghdad, the British-created parliamentary system began to disintegrate. The brutal but popular expeditions against the Assyrians made heroes of the leading army officers, who used their new stature to meddle in Iraqi politics. By 1935, the Iraqi army could dictate the membership of the prime minister’s Cabinet, while the prime minister’s seat was occupied by one army officer after another. As Iraq’s civilian politicians faded from the political scene, the government restricted civil liberties and increased the army’s size.

Despite warnings from its officials in Baghdad and pleas for assistance from more liberal-minded Iraqi politicians, Britain did nothing to preserve its constitutional creation. With their access to Iraq’s oil secure, British leaders lost interest in Iraqi politics. Distracted by an outbreak of Arab-Zionist violence in Palestine, they concluded that the British army was stretched too thin to return to Iraq in force. Besides, in their eyes, Iraq’s new authoritarian government hardly posed a threat.

But that assessment changed with the approach of World War II, as the Iraqi state became increasingly militaristic and pro-German. By 1940, the Iraqi army had opened back-channel negotiations with Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. A year later, Iraqi army officers seized the government and threatened to join the Axis powers. Faced with the prospect of an enemy between British Egypt and India, the British army returned to Iraq to reclaim Baghdad once again. As British troops approached the capital, Iraqi thugs, reportedly along with some soldiers and police, went into the streets and slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi Jews. The incident prompted tens of thousands of Jews to flee to what is now Israel.

Seven years of costly and unpopular British military occupation followed, during which Britain again attempted to shore up an Iraqi constitutional monarchy. Its army and air force remained in Iraq until a general British withdrawal from the Middle East in 1947-48, although the British Embassy continued to pull the levers of power in Iraq until 1955. Three years later, the Iraqi army seized power again, ending constitutional government in Iraq for good.

Britain’s experience offers some clear lessons for today’s U.S.-led coalition. The premature withdrawal of British troops in 1932 set the stage for the Iraqi army’s seizure of power and vicious suppression of Shiites and ethnic minorities. Who can say today that, after restoring stability, an army of pardoned Sunni Baathists would not try to follow suit, especially if the U.S. withdrew?

Building an Iraqi army from scratch is maddeningly slow but is probably the only sure way to guarantee an apolitical force in Iraq that would follow civilian orders and respect the constitution. If the Fallouja deal succeeds in restoring peace and quiet, it will set a tempting precedent. But if in the interests of short-term stability more remnants of the Baathist army are tapped to help restore security, who is to say that the U.S. would not in a few years find, as the British painfully did in 1941, that it had sacrificed long-term security by creating a new enemy in a strategically vital region?

In such a case, a U.S. re-invasion would probably be both unavoidable and far more difficult. All this speaks against culling through Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in search of Baathist generals with hearts of gold. They aren’t there and never were.