Winston Churchill's Role In The Middle East And Iraq

Roundup: Talking About History

John Lukacs, The Boston Globe, 19 Sept. 2004

Winston Churchill had a very long political career. Until the 65th year of his life (1939) he had few successes and many failures. Some of these failures were of his own doing, byproducts of his temperament, one feature of which was his rather un-British inclination to impatience. Others were the results of bad luck and/or of his being mistrusted by others. Within the now veritable library of books about Churchill one of the best is"Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939," written more than 30 years ago by Robert Rhodes James, a very good British historian (he died prematurely, alas). It is not listed in the bibliography of"Churchill's Folly," by another British historian, Christopher Catherwood. This is not a very good book, and it is not very well written. But it deserves consideration, and not only because of the timeliness of its topic.

After the end of World War I the entire map of Eastern Europe and of the Near or Middle East changed drastically. Four great empires the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Tsarist Russian, and the Turkish Ottoman dissolved. (Nothing like that happened after World War II.) The chaotic immediate consequences of these dissolutions went on, in the case of the Ottoman Empire for five years, involving a larger portion of the globe than in the cases of the other three former empires. Yet most of the results of this grandiose remaking of the map of the Middle East have remained till this day: Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Palestine (and a Jewish homeland) are extant entities even now. Twenty years after World War I, Poland and the Baltic states ceased to exist, albeit temporarily, and Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia no longer exist. Such is the irony of history.

Winston Churchill became colonial secretary in January 1921. The Middle East was now his bailiwick. His responsibilities were enormous. He was in charge of drawing the map of much of the Middle East, from which the Turks had been forced to pull out. His difficulties were no less enormous. He faced the recalcitrance of a dozen Arab tribes, and the inclinations of his prime minister, David Lloyd George. The Allies Britain, France, Italy, and Greece had imposed an impossible treaty on the defeated Turks, who were now rising under a remarkable new leader, Kemal. Lloyd George was obstinate in his support of the Greeks, who had taken more of Turkey than they could ever be expected to hold. Churchill was not: He esteemed Kemal's mettle and wanted to see"a reconciled Turkey against the Bolsheviks and to smooth down all our affairs in the Middle East." Churchill was against breaking up Turkey entirely. Iraq was a part of the former Turkish Empire, and he wanted a small British commitment to Iraq.

Much of Churchill's work was accomplished at a conference in Cairo in March 1921. Catherwood writes that"Churchill's scheme was, in effect, to establish a series of pro-British client monarchies, all of whose rulers would owe Britain a debt of considerable gratitude simply for the fact that they were in power at all." After a few decades some of the monarchs disappeared but the states remain. (Jordan, for example, was even more of an artificial creation than was Iraq.) In the end even Lloyd George congratulated Churchill for having turned"a mere collection of tribes into a nation" in Iraq.

So was this then"Churchill's folly"? The publicity release of this books says:"Defying a global wave of nationalistic sentiment, Churchill put together the pieces of the Ottoman Empire and created a Middle Eastern powder keg." To a considerable extent the contrary is true. Churchill had few illusions about Iraq (which he, for some time, and with eminent reason, liked to call"Mesopotamia"). He sometimes wanted to withdraw from Iraq, or in any event, to keep British presence and expenditures there to a minimum.

Churchill made his mistakes, of which the most enduring was his failure to establish Kurdistan, a state for the Kurds, among the other new nations. Catherwood is also wrong when writing that if Churchill had had his way in 1915 about the Dardanelles and Gallipoli:"[That] could have truly ended [World War I] earlier" which is arguable indeed.

Like Robert Rhodes James, Catherwood is unstinting in his respect for the Churchill of 1949 and World War II. He made extensive use of the Churchill archives but perhaps not enough of the papers of other participants. The contents of"Churchill's Folly" are often illuminating, but its author's conclusions are not.

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