Americans, it is often said, are in general ignorant of history, both their own and that of other countries around the world. This lack of historical knowledge and understanding means that too many Americans cannot appreciate the context of many political events in other parts of the globe.
For example, the political conflicts and atrocities that have occurred for more than a decade in the former Yugoslavia are the legacies of the peace treaties that followed the end of World War I. Prewar Serbia was expanded to include large parts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, areas that contained Slovenians, Croats, Bosnians, as well as those populated by Macedonians, Albanians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, and Hungarians. The Serbs dominated the government of this artificially created “Yugoslavia” in the years between the two world wars. After World War II, the country was kept together under the grip of a communist regime.
As the Cold War was ending and communism was losing its hold over Eastern Europe, the national, religious, and linguistic groups in Yugoslavia split apart. The wars and brutalities witnessed in this region of the Balkans since the early 1990s are a continuation of conflicts that predate World War I, when these groups were fighting both against the Turks, who had controlled much of this territory into the twentieth century, and among themselves for independence from and domination over each other. The settling of old scores between feuding groups, and the determination of political boundaries between these national, religious, and linguistic groups that were not allowed to be sorted out after 1918, have been playing themselves out before our eyes.
Another example of the legacy of World War I on contemporary global politics is Iraq. Before the war, what is now called Iraq was part of the Turkish Empire and was known as Mesopotamia—the ancient Biblical land of Babylon. During the war, the British, French, Italian, and Russian governments had signed a secret agreement to divide up most of the Turkish Empire among themselves. In the postwar period, some of this planned partition came to fruition as part of the peace treaties. France gained control of what is now known as Syria and Lebanon. The British acquired control of what became known as Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq, through “mandates” under the auspices of the League of Nations. (In 1899 the British had already established a “protectorate” over what is now called Kuwait.)
The story behind the creation of Iraq is told by Christopher Catherwood in his book Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq. During World War I, the British had invaded this part of the Turkish Empire and occupied Basra and Baghdad. At the end of the war they marched up to Mosul in the north. Prominent figures in the British military already sensed the importance of the country’s oil potential, though exploration had not fully shown the degree to which reserves were under the sand.
In early 1921 Winston Churchill was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies as well as head of a Middle East Department responsible for Palestine and Iraq in the British government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He viewed his tasks as: (a) reducing British military expenditures in the colonial areas as much as possible to relieve pressure on the government’s budget; and (b) assuring that stable governments were established in Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq to guarantee British political and economic interests in this region of the world, including security for the shipping and air routes to the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire: India.
Churchill was determined to cut spending by reducing British ground forces to a minimum, yet at the same time maintain British control over these areas. He was persuaded that air power could replace ground troops, through the use of a bombing strategy to keep under control any restive “natives” who might attempt to revolt against British authority or those whom the British put into local power. Several times in the early 1920s, when various tribal groups in Iraq rose up in opposition to the British, the air force was put into action, bombing not only military targets but civilian areas as well. Killing and wounding women and children were considered a way of intimidating the population into submission. This included the use of mustard and other poison gases.
In May 1920 Churchill was a vocal advocate of implementing this bombing strategy, telling a cabinet meeting that poison gas “should be definitely accepted as a weapon of war.” On another occasion in 1919, he said, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas . . . I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against the uncivilized tribes.” And one other time Churchill argued that “Gas is a more merciful weapon than high explosives and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war. The moral effect is also very great. There can be no conceivable reason why it should not be resorted to.”
Securing British control and influence over these areas of the Middle East required the establishment of “friendly” governments under British sponsorship. While there have long been references to “the Arabs” and pan-Arab nationalism, in fact, the Arabs have been splintered into different branches of the Islamic faith (mostly concerning who was legitimate heir to Mohammed’s role as leader of the faithful) and tribal factions in various parts of Arabia.
The family of Saud under the leadership of Ibn Saud came out of World War I as a British-sponsored political power in the central part of the Arabian Peninsula. Along the Red Sea coast, the newly created Kingdom of Hijaz, which contained the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was under the rule of King Hussein, head of the Hashemite branch of Mohammed’s clan, the Quraishi. But in 1924 Ibn Saud’s forces conquered the Hijaz and deposed Hussein.
The British established King Hussein’s son, Abdullah, on the throne of “Trans-Jordan,” that part of Palestine east of the Jordan River, since Palestine west of the Jordan had been promised as a Jewish homeland under the wartime Balfour Declaration. A descendant of Abdullah still reigns today in Amman, Jordan.
Hussein’s other son, Faisal, had attempted to establish himself as ruler in Syria, although he was kicked out by the French. But he was to have another chance through the assistance of Churchill. Artificially carving out the boundaries of Iraq, and with little thought to the divergent groups now locked within the same borders, the British proceeded to set up a “native” government through which they could rule the country under the terms of the League of Nations mandate.
With the approval of the British Cabinet, Churchill schemed to establish Faisal as the king of Iraq. A limited and manipulated election process was set in motion, and Faisal assumed the role of ruler of Iraq in 1 9 2 2. One additional problem in this process was that Faisal was a Sunni, the minority branch of Islam within the territory of Iraq. Thus Sunni political control over the Shiite majority long predated the more recent dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and was the product of British diplomatic intrigue.
Churchill and the British government soon found out that political puppets often resent and resist their role as marionettes at the end of strings held by someone else. Within months of taking power, Faisal attempted to gain more autonomy and power for himself, while expecting the British to pay for the military, political, and economic costs of running the country. Churchill was frustrated and angry at Faisal’s behavior, declaring in exasperation that “while we have to pay the piper we must be effectively consulted as to the tune.” The British were caught in a bind, because while they threatened to withdraw from Iraq and leave Faisal to his own devices, they were fearful that the country might fall to the aggressive Turks to the north, or — almost as bad — to the French, who would have liked to get their hands on the oil fields in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. So they had no alternative but to stay on, and pay a good part of Faisal’s bills.
At the end of 1922, Lloyd George’s government fell from power, and with it Churchill’s position in the Cabinet; in the new election he lost his in seat in Parliament as well. But the consequences of the British creation of Iraq are still with us.