John Menadue. The Iraq disaster – reaping what we have sown.

Aug 27, 2014

The seeds of the disaster in Iraq were sown long ago. We are now reaping a very bitter harvest.

A major contributor to the upsurge in violence, terrorism and extremism in Iraq is the sense of outrage that many young Muslim men feel about the invasion of their country by successive Western powers, including Australia.

The Howard Government and News Corporation which supported our participation in the coalition of the willing must bear a heavy responsibility for the unfolding horror.

I have set out below an article by Tony Walker in The Australian Financial Review of 29 March, 2003, headed ‘America’s hard history lesson’. I have also a link below to an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter of only a few days ago, entitled ‘Editorial: Path of destruction in Iraq began in 1991’

Both articles draw attention to the futility of earlier Western interventions in Iraq.

In 2004, Mick Keelty, the AFP Commissioner warned us that our involvement in Iraq made us a greater target for terrorism. In 2010, The Head of UK’s MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, told the Chilcott Inquiry that ‘ Our involvement in Iraq radicalised … a whole generation of young people, … who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.’

George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard were obviously unaware of the history of Iraq. We are now seeing a catastrophe because of leaders who were unable to learn from history.

John Menadue.




SAT 29 MAR 2003,



By: Story Tony Walker, DOHA    

Through the centuries, the Middle East has proved hostile territory to invaders from the west and north. Even if the invaders won the battles, none, ultimately, won their particular war.

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia [what is now Iraq] into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information … Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far out from disaster.’

That dispatch was written for The Sunday Times by its special correspondent T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). It appeared on August 22, 1920. How extraordinary that the same words could be published today and seem almost contemporary, depending on your point of view.

What Lawrence was talking about was the irredeemable arrogance of British colonial rule although he might just as easily have been referring to the consequences of a new American unilateralism. He was not talking about an all-out war, like the one we are witnessing now, but about the aftermath of conflict, namely World War I, in which the Ottoman empire crumbled and was replaced across the Middle East by Pax Britannica. In Mesopotamia it was no benevolent pax; far from it.

As Iraq braces for a further intensification of a conflict whose aim is to rid the country of its leader and his regime, Iraqis must fear that the war itself will be only part of the horror. If history is a guide, war will be followed by an uncertain possibly bloody aftermath.

Ten thousand Arabs were killed, according to Lawrence, by the British military governors in Baghdad in putting down an uprising in the summer of 1920, two years after the end of WWI.  ‘We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil … Our government is worse than the old Turkish system,’ Lawrence wrote.

Britain’s occupation of Mesopotamia might not have ended in the disaster predicted by Lawrence, but the clumsy redrawing of the map of the Middle East under the Treaty of Sevres by the ‘Great Powers’ actually, the dividing up of WWI spoils contributed in no small way to the general volatility of and latest convulsion in the region.

Whatever happens in Iraq over the next days, weeks, months and years, it requires a level of optimism to believe that good will necessarily come from the destruction that is being visited on Iraqis and their country.

Baghdad’s bloody history is not encouraging. Built in 762AD by the Abbasids, it has endured war and conquest repeatedly. It was sacked by the Mongols in 1258, the streets turned into rivers of blood, the alleyways filled with corpses. It fell to Tamerlane in 1401. The Persians seized it in 1508, then it was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1534. It was recaptured by the Persians in 1623, before the Ottomans regained control in 1638 for the next three centuries.

While it might be argued that no fate is too dreadful for Saddam Hussein, to achieve such a desirable result as his demise it should not be necessary to raze cities. You shudder to think what Iraq and its people will look like if the bombing continues for a few more weeks, followed by an assault on Baghdad itself. The errant missiles that slammed into a suburban Baghdad market on Wednesday, killing 15 civilians and wounding many others, are unlikely to be an isolated tragedy, even though the US has said repeatedly wrongly, as it turns out that the precision of modern weaponry makes this strike the military equivalent of laser surgery: no blood, no scars. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounds more like Dr Strangelove every day.

Speaking of Rumsfeld, his observation on Tuesday that the war was much closer to the beginning than the end was a belated nudge towards candour in light of the obvious that Iraqis, whatever they think of Hussein, are resisting more determinedly than expected.
It’s interesting to note here that last week the Americans, repeating their mantra of ‘shock and awe’ to describe the initial bombing campaign, were telling people to stay in their homes and await further instructions while exhorting the Iraqi military to surrender. Now the message to people, especially in the southern city of Basra, is to rise up against their oppressors. Sceptics might conclude this is an admission that the undermanned invaders their supply lines stretched, their ability to secure their rear shaky need some help on the ground.

If there is a querulousness in the latest statements by US officials it is quite simply because, whatever they pretend, things are not going according to the script. The regime has not imploded, the populace has not risen up, the liberators are not being welcomed with hearts and flowers. It is entirely possible that when the blowtorch is applied to Baghdad, a horrible regime will indeed collapse, or shrivel up in its burrows deep below the city. But on the evidence so far, it seems unlikely the Iraqi citadel will fall without a fight.
In the meantime, George Bush, Tony Blair, John Howard and their advisers might reflect if it is not too late on some historical amber lights, starting with the Crusades, a campaign 900 years ago to liberate the heathen and enlighten them in the ways of Christianity (note that word: liberate). It failed.

Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf remarks in his book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes that ‘the Arab world simultaneously fascinated and terrified by these Franj [Frankish invaders], whom they encountered as barbarians and defeated but who subsequently managed to dominate the earth cannot bring itself to consider the Crusades a mere episode in the bygone past. It is often surprising to discover the extent to which the attitude of the Arabs (and of Muslims in general) towards the West is still influenced, even today, by events that supposedly ended seven centuries ago.’

Whether Westerners believe reference to the Crusades by Hussein or Osama bin Laden to bolster support to be legitimate, these historical events do resonate in the minds of many Arabs as if they happened yesterday.

As the editor of the London-based Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat said in one of this week’s more acute observations: ‘I think this is an emotional time rather than a rational time.’

Princeton University professor and Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis noted in a 1990 essay, ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, published in The Atlantic Monthly, that just as blind Arab prejudice about the West weighed heavily, so Americans functioned in a fog of ignorance about the Muslim world. When Lewis wrote then that American policy had not suffered disasters in the Middle East comparable with those in South-East Asia or Central America, he could not have imagined that things would change so dramatically in a decade or so.

Regime change was but a twinkle in the eyes of Richard Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld, and there was no sign of a malleable occupant in the White House.

There is no Cuba, no Vietnam, in the Muslim world, and no place where American forces are involved as combatants or even as “advisers”. But there is a Libya, and Iran, and a Lebanon, and a surge of hatred that distresses, alarms and above all baffles Americans,’ Lewis wrote.

The bafflement is set to deepen in fact is deepening, as it seems that since September 11, 2001, Americans have lost a sense of proportion. Certainly normal prudence has been jettisoned.

Among the more frequently cited historical lessons about the perils of Western hubris in the Middle East is the experience of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon may have been the world’s most brilliant general, but he suffered his worst defeat in the Middle East when his forces were repelled in 1799 in a siege of a stronghold of the Ottoman Turks at Acre, in what is now Israel. Attack after attack failed, and hundreds of French soldiers died in the process. Napoleon eventually retreated to Cairo with a decimated army.

Accounts of the siege of Acre are not recommended bed-time reading for Bush, Blair and Howard. Blair, whose troops are laying siege to Basra, may draw some encouragement from the British experience in Mesopotamia during WWI. British troops occupied Basra in 1915. By 1917, they had control of Baghdad, and a year later they took Mosul. By the end of the war they held the whole of Mesopotamia. That was when the real trouble began as nationalistic Arabs formed anti-British secret societies. Riots broke out in 1920.

These are the events that Lawrence, doubling as journalist and agent for British military intelligence, described in his dispatch for The Sunday Times. His final paragraphs make interesting reading in light of current events, especially the need for the US to rush additional troops to the region to cope with nagging Iraqi resistance.

We have not reached the limit of our military commitments,’ Lawrence wrote. ‘Four weeks ago the staff in Mesopotamia drew up a memorandum asking for four more divisions. I believe it was forwarded to the War Office, which has now sent three brigades from India. If the North-West Frontier cannot be further denuded, where is the balance to come from? Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly in lives for the wilfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad.’ And, in conclusion:We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world … How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?’

All this underlines just how complicated will be the task of pacifying Iraq and then reconstructing it, which is why there has been such a premium on a swift military victory causing minimum civilian casualties and avoiding large-scale destruction of infrastructure. That prospect has faded. A viper’s nest has been stirred. The legacy of bitter conflict will further contaminate what is in any case a poisonous cocktail dating back to the days of British rule.

As a paper on regional fallout from a war in Iraq by the Middle East program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) points out: ‘Iraqi politics, from the creation of the state in the aftermath of World War I, have been dominated by the deployment of organised violence by the state to dominate and shape society; the use by the state of oil revenue to give it autonomy from society; and the recreation of ethnic and communal divisions within Iraqi society. The degree to which these dynamics can be overcome will depend upon the extent and nature of external influence in the aftermath of regime change. This in turn is dependent on the way war is waged.’

The signs at this early stage are not promising. These are worrying moments for members of the coalition of the willing, no matter what sort of face they seek to put on progress in the war. History is not necessarily a comforting guide.


The National Catholic Reporter, editorial, August 25, 2014.

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