Alistair Horne: Bush's favorite historian

Historians in the News

Sir Alistair Horne may be the only author in the world whose books have been read and praised by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon and Robert Fisk. Not to mention by much of the senior military staff of the U.S. Army, Middle East scholars, State Department policy wonks, and realpolitik statesmen. The distinguished British historian, author of 18 books, became the talk of the U.S. chattering classes when it was revealed that President Bush was reading his classic account of the 1954-1962 Algerian War, "A Savage War of Peace." Indeed, Bush was so impressed with "A Savage War of Peace" that he invited Horne to come to the White House for tea and a talk last Thursday.

"He wrote me the most charming handwritten letter, said he was very interested in my books, and wanted to know more. He said 'A Savage War of Peace' has been most useful. I was quite stunned," said Horne.

Horne declined to go into details about what they talked about, saying their conversation was off the record. "He was extremely courteous, very cheerful, loves jokes and he couldn't have been more charming. I was very honored," Horne said. "He was very determined. 'We're not going to give up, we're not going to give up,' he repeated from time to time. He was very interested in my book, had obviously read it most thoroughly, as he had my other book, 'The Price of Glory' [about the WWI battle of Verdun]. He had put in a lot of work. Where he finds the time I don't know. We discussed the book in depth. We disagreed about a few points. I didn't entirely agree with his admiration for Tony Blair, but that was a matter of personal predilection."

For Horne, such access to the highest levels of power is not unusual. He was a friend of the Conservative British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and wrote his biography. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that "A Savage War of Peace" was his favorite bedside reading, and that one of Horne's earlier books, "To Lose a Battle: France 1940," helped him win the 1973 October War against Egypt....

[Horne initially supported the Iraq War. He now opposes the war and ridiculees neoconservatives for getting the US and Britain into it.]

Given that "A Savage War of Peace" is being read as a mirror of the current war, what does Horne think are the parallels between Algeria and Iraq? "The first one is the difficulty of combating insurgents with a regular army," he said. "Too heavy forces, too much collateral damage. The second is porous frontiers. In Algeria, they had Morocco and Tunisia on either side, so the FLN could stage raids and then go back across the border so the French couldn't get them. Now you've got a similar situation in Iraq, with Syria and Iran. The third is the tactic of targeting local police. In Algeria, the insurgents were just a handful compared to what you've got in Iraq. They realized that they couldn't beat the French army, so they attacked the local police who were loyal to the French. This was enormously successful. The French had to take the army back from search and destroy missions to protect the police. So both the police and the army were neutralized. The insurgents in Iraq have copied the Algerian experience to great effect."

Horne turned to the parallel that he feels most passionately about. "The fourth thing, and this is the painful issue, is torture or abuse," he said. "In Algeria, the French used torture -- as opposed to abuse -- very effectively as an instrument of war. They had some success with it; they did undoubtedly get some intelligence from the use of torture. But they also got a lot of wrong intelligence, which inevitably happens. But worse than that, from the French point of view, was that when the news came out in France of what the army was doing, it caused such a revulsion that it led directly to the French capitulation. And not only revulsion in France, but revulsion here. JFK, as a senator, took up the Algerian cause quite strongly partly because of the human rights issue.

"I feel myself absolutely clear in my own mind that you do not, whatever the excuse, use torture, let alone abuse," Horne went on. "In one way, of course, abuse is not as bad as torture, but in another way it's worse because it's senseless. It doesn't achieve anything. Abu Ghraib was just appalling. In the Algerian war, the media was very primitive -- it took about a year to actually get the news into the press in France. There was no television then. With Abu Ghraib, the images were on Al-Jazeera the next day. The impact, across the whole of the Muslim world, is enormous. What do you get for it? Nothing." ...

The fifth parallel Horne saw between Algeria and Iraq is the one that now confronts the Bush administration: an exit strategy. "In Algeria, the war went on for eight years, and the military, rather like the military in Vietnam, had a very good case for saying they were winning it," Horne said. "But de Gaulle decided they had to go. They were negotiating for months with the FLN, like the peeling of an onion. The French lost every bloody thing, including the rights to oil. They had to pull out all 1 million pieds noirs." The pieds noirs, of whom Albert Camus is the most famous, were French colonial settlers, many of whom traced their roots in Algeria back to the French conquest in 1830. "One of the worst things that happened in Algeria was what happened to the Harkis, the Algerians who were loyal to France," Horne explained. As he relates in his book, the Harkis were slaughtered by their vengeful countrymen after the French left, with an estimated 30,000 to 150,000 perishing. "Absolutely appalling. I fear that we're going to have a Harki situation or much worse coming up in Iraq, because of the numbers involved. The savagery in Iraq is worse than what it was in Algeria."

Horne believes that America's exit strategy must take into account an updated domino theory. "When the domino theory was applied to Vietnam, it was much despised. People said it didn't mean a thing. But here I think it does, because an over-speedy exit from Iraq is going to leave a vacuum with possibly terrible consequences," he said. "Take Saudi Arabia. Are we going to have another Iranian revolution there? I would think it's really ripe for it. Even aside from al-Qaida, there's an awful lot of opposition to the Saudi royal family. And then you've got the question of Iran, which could emerge as the most powerful power in the area. So I'm just extremely glad I'm not George W. Bush because I don't know how you can get out gracefully." ...

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