Printed from WriteWords -

Short Ride in a Time Machine

by  James Graham

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2005
Word Count: 2320

Here's a confident prediction...well, fairly confident. There won't be a US invasion of Iran this year - maybe not even next year, or the year after.

Even though, as Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker Magazine in January, US Central Command has been asked to update its strategic plans for invasion, it won't happen. Iraq is a big country - one of the reasons we were given for the difficulty of finding WMDs there - but Iran is nearly four times bigger. Militarily, Iran would be a formidable enemy and might well inflict another Vietnam on the US (and on the unfortunate GIs) but take a lot less time about it than the Vietnamese did. So there may be a few air strikes on Iranian power stations, or possibly the Russian embassy. But no invasion.

Clearly this is good news for the people of Iran, but there's a secondary benefit too. The fact that George Bush is not hurrying on from one crusade to the next gives all of us time to understand why the Iraqi people were so unlucky. Time, indeed, to get a real understanding. Time to study a little history.

So please take your seats in the time machine.


Already, in less than no time so to speak, we've arrived.

Now guess the year.

We find the Middle East in turmoil. Valuable oil and other Western interests are said to be under threat. Although there was no specific act of provocation, a British force has landed in southern Iraq and quickly taken Basra against weak resistance. A distinguished political commentator has observed that most of the people had no heart to defend Basra on behalf of the oppressive regime.

None of this refers to the events of 2003. The hands of the big grandfather clock of history have gone back much further. Nearly a century, to 1914. The distinguished - and still famous - commentator is T.E. Lawrence, and the old regime he was talking about was the Ottoman Empire at its last gasp. For almost a century, since the collapse of that old empire, Iraq has had virtually no history independent of Western intervention.

The 1914 invasion caused, as it turned out, more suffering among the invading British and colonial troops than to the enemy. Beyond Basra - no Americans then to carry the flag all the way to Baghdad - things got very bad indeed. Facing a Turkish force some ten times their strength, the British had to make a hundred-mile retreat and suffer a long seige and final surrender at Kut al-Amara. Prisoners were force-marched six hundred miles to Turkey, where the survivors were put to forced labour. But the British government threw more troops at the enemy until in 1917 Baghdad was at last taken.

Meanwhile in Europe, all the necessary paperwork was being attended to. A British MP, Sir Mark Sykes, and his French counterpart, François Picot, were busy during 1916 on official business, drawing up what went down in history as the Sykes-Picot memorandum. The text of the memorandum was clear, and the accompanying map of the Middle East even clearer. Lebanon, Syria and Northern Iraq as far as Mosul were coloured in to show that they were French; and Palestine and all the rest of Iraq were coloured British. None of the leaders of the Arab world was told about this arrangement; on the contrary, they were told outright lies. They were led to believe, through explicit policy statements and numerous diplomatic assurances, that after the war was over Britain and France would support their aspirations to political independence. When this proved not to be the case - as the French occupied Lebanon and Syria and the British set up a military government in Iraq - the sense of betrayal among Arab leaders and peoples was profound.

Against considerable opposition, and after kidnapping and deporting Sayyid Talib, a leading nationalist who had adopted the outrageous slogan 'Iraq for the Iraqis', the British set up a puppet state under King Faisal. Here a long story can be cut short: under Faisal and his heirs Iraq remained a British client state until the 1950s - the time of Suez and the Arab resurgence inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Following a military coup in 1958 (the Free Officers Revolt) Iraq did shake off Western domination for a time.

While our time machine is in the Fifties, why not take an optional excursion just across the border into Iran? Here we find, in 1951, the British Government - the Attlee Labour government - considering an invasion of Iran. Iran was, of course, considered a serious threat at that time. Not because a wicked dictator was flouting human rights and preparing to attack at 45 minutes notice. On the contrary, Iran was a democracy; but the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mussadiq had just nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which later became BP). Clearly this was an act of aggression. The Attlee government, and its Tory successor, rather quickly abandoned the invasion idea, for much the same reasons as Bush may come up against in his turn - that it had no hope of succeeding. Instead - again to cut a long story short - by undercover action the British MI6 and American CIA together managed, by funding armed opposition groups, to overthrow not only Mussadiq's government but Iranian democracy itself, and install the Shah as an autocratic - but 'friendly' - head of state. Time travel broadens the mind: from our brief excursion we may have learned something about why, two decades later, there was an Islamic revolution in Iran.


Meanwhile, back in Baghdad: by the sixties we are moving out of the era of British imperialism into the age of the American empire. Moving too into the age of Saddam, for many years as reliable a Western client as King Faisal had been in his day, receiving distinguished guests such as Douglas Hurd and Donald Rumsfeld, and through their good offices all the cash and armaments he could ever possibly need.

This is a defence of the Iraqi people, not of Saddam Hussein. But even when we speak of Saddam there are one or two things to say in mitigation.

1. Though it was just as much a flouting of international law as Bush's 2003 adventure, there is nevertheless is a case for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. For several years before 1990, the rulers of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had been trying to price Iraq out of the oil market, depressing the price of Iraqi oil to such an extent that projects financed from oil money had to be cut back or cancelled. Of course, we know that Saddam's projects included the building of preposterous palace complexes; but the country's infrastructure and public services were suffering too.

The other notable element in Saddam's decision to invade was the now notorious 'green light': for several months he was explicitly and repeatedly told that if he were to take miltary action the United States would not stand in his way. It is difficult for ordinary, rational people like you and me to understand this, except to see it as a trick - a deliberate provocation so that as soon as Saddam rose to the bait, the West could not only launch the 1991 war but sell it to their own electorates as justified action against naked aggression. And since we are travelling so quickly through time, we can see at a glance how history really does repeat itself: in 1916-17 and again in 1989-90, lies that would have broken the lie-detector.

2. Before he upset the Saudis and the Americans and morphed overnight from trusted friend to second Hitler, Saddam was massively supported and encouraged by the West. In 1963, at the time of the first seizure of power by the Ba'ath Party, the CIA helpfully supplied hit lists of political enemies, who were then arrested and shot after mock trials, or in some cases simply shot in the street. That was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership between Saddam's party - by the late 70s, Saddam himself as autocratic leader - and the Washington-London axis. Saddam's ten-year war against Iran, in which nerve gas and mustard gas were used, and tens of thousands of child soldiers died, was supplied and financed by the West. Saddam's atrocities against Kurds and Shia Muslims were not discouraged.

3. In the seventies and eighties Saddam's Ba'ath Party actually paid attention to the only thing that we might say truly justifies the existence of governments: the undramatic business of increasing the country's prosperity and improving the lives of its citizens. It has to be said that the cynical view of this is probably close to the truth: that the Ba'ath assumed the mantle of social reform in order to buy popular support and reduce the hitherto very broad support for the Iraqi Communist Party. But whatever their motive may have been, the Ba'ath undoubtedly did (to borrow the Blair-Howard buzzword) 'deliver'.

The nationalisation of the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1972 gave Iraq access for the first time to most of its own resources, and made it possible for the country to rise by 1990 to what we might call the top of the second division - one of the richest of the poor nations. Rich in the sense of having a rich and powerful capitalist elite, but also distributing its wealth significantly to the poor in the form of national health insurance, a minimum wage, low-cost housing, health clinics and hospitals, and universal education. There was 95% adult literacy. 92% of the population had access to clean water, and 93% qualified for free health care.

After the savage assault by the West in 1991, twelve years of sanctions backed up by not-so-low-intensity bombing, and finally occupation, remnants of these social advances remain, but they are terribly damaged - both physically, by thousands of tons of ordnance, and economically through the general impoverishment that war and sanctions bring in their wake. With a few masterstrokes the West has brought the Iraqi people far down that second division of poor nations.

We must not underestimate the amount of airborne killing and destruction that went on throughout the sanctions period. Many of the air attacks were of the turkey-shoot variety, with no apparent purpose except to zap a few more cloth-heads. In one incident among many, a farmer, his son and four grandsons were working in open country, rounding up some sheep to load into a truck for market. A US aircrew left body parts of men, dogs and sheep scattered over the hillside. Attacks on real and imaginary military targets and on unmistakeably civilian ones took place several times a week over the whole twelve years - the longest period of sustained bombardment since 1945.

The economic consequences of sanctions were in a sense crueller than war. In war, many places and people escape the direct effects of bombardment. Sanctions affect everybody except the privileged. Ordinary Iraqi people, including tens of thousands of children who died of diseases for which medicines could no longer be obtained, were punished for the misdeeds of Saddam, his family and ruling elite. We were led to believe that the noble purpose of sanctions was to starve this elite of the means to pursue weapons programmes. But in practice it was starvation of another kind. By 2002, the US figure for the value of 'contract holds' - the withholding of permission to export to Iraq such things as food, medicines, water purification equipment, and spare parts for machines - was $5.2 billion. The Iraqi government estimate was $8 billion. As with all such figures, the right answer is probably close to an average of the two.

In fact the flow of weapons to Saddam continued after the first Gulf War. Now it was less official: the arms industry kept this key outlet open, and government turned a blind eye. As well as conventional weapons, botulism was supplied in the early 90s by a company in Maryland, and anthrax by Porton Down.

And so we come to the latest phase in this sorry history. US and British soldiers, in 2003 as in 1991, had to face enemy fire from weapons manufactured by the British and American arms industry. And having occupied the country, the US and Britain must now 'reconstruct' Iraq, that is repair the damage they themselves have largely caused. All of which is compounded by the recent report by US government auditors detailing how $8.8bn of the $20bn oil revenues earmarked for reconstruction has been embezzled through fraudulent invoicing and other scams.

If we knew nothing else but what we hear on the news media, we would inhabit a strange, disconnected world. A world in which things happen in an eternal present - a present spanning maybe a year or two at most. A world too in which events can happen in any order - tsunami, election in Iraq, the trial of Michael Jackson, genocide in Sudan. Events are sparingly contextualised. They pass before our eyes like floats in a carnival parade; as each one passes out of sight, a new exhibit takes our attention. We are spectators, bystanders. Events are for viewing: thinking about them is difficult, the privilege of acting on them is to be surrendered to our political and corporate leaders.

Our leaders are happy for us to live in the moment. Tony Blair certainly doesn't want us to go back over all that stuff about whether the war was legal, or whether the Attorney-General said it was illegal. All that's history now, and we have to move on.

So we ought to be grateful to the Bush administration for allowing us a valuable breathing space - for slowing down the furious pace of moving on, so that we could make our little time-voyage of discovery.