What a carve-up

Winston's Folly: imperialism and the creation of modern Iraq

Christopher Catherwood <em>Constable,

There is something outwardly appealing about the title of this book, with its suggestion that the US occupation of Iraq is an imperial misadventure of the kind that befell Britain in Mesopotamia more than eight decades ago. President George W Bush likes to display a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office. If only he had studied his hero's actions in the Middle East more closely, he might not have been so surprised by the violent turn of events in Iraq during the past year.

There are undoubtedly fascinating parallels between the sequence of events in Iraq today and the carve-up of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War. In both cases, the "liberation" of Iraq by foreign invaders was followed by indigenous revolt and, as the cost of holding down the country became too great, the hasty creation of an Arab government led by a congenial figurehead, supported by the outsiders' military might. These parallels have important implications: before trying to remake the Middle East, the US should consider how it was made in the first place by European leaders - with Churchill at the forefront.

Do not rely, however, on Christopher Catherwood's slapdash account to draw together the complex strands of Iraqi history into a whole that is relevant to today's events. The book is little better than an undergraduate's extended essay - filled with tedious repetition, irritating digressions, and forced attempts to project a straight line between, say, British subsidies in the 1920s to Ibn Saud, founder of the reigning Saudi dynasty, and Osama Bin Laden today.

The text of Winston's Folly actually undermines the thesis of its title. By the author's own account, if the creation of Iraq was anybody's folly, it was more that of the prime minister, David Lloyd George, than of Churchill. Churchill hated the costly and bloody entanglement in Iraq, and actively considered withdrawing British troops to Basra. He believed that Lloyd George's anti-Turkish policy was endangering Britain's position in the Islamic world, potentially stirring trouble among Muslims in the Raj. Churchill's priority was not Mesopotamia, but waging the fight against Bolshevism in Russia and Persia. At one point, he suggested that all outside powers - the British, the French, the Italians and the Greeks - should renounce claims to former Ottoman territories. At a time when Iraq's oil reserves were hardly known about, he believed that the British-ruled territories in Africa offered better opportunities "for Imperial development than the Middle East".

In the end, Churchill decided against "the policy of scuttle" - withdrawing from Iraq - on the grounds that it would be a humiliation for the British empire. Instead, he sought the cheapest way of holding on to the new possessions - indirect rule through Arab potentates, in the case of Iraq through the coronation of the Hashemite King Feisal, who had played a central role in the Arab Revolt in the Hejaz, but had been evicted from Damascus by the French. Iraq would be policed on the cheap by an Arab force. It would be backed by the nascent Royal Air Force, rather than by manpower-intensive imperial ground troops.

That the modern Middle East is a folly is beyond question. But Catherwood does not tell us what should have been done with the territories captured after the defeat of the Ottoman empire, which had entered the war on Germany's side and lost. Should the Arab regions have been handed back to the Turks? Should they have been subdivided into even smaller parcels with more Arab puppets? Should the Wahhabi zealots of Ibn Saud, the rising Arab military power, have been allowed to take as much land as they could?

Although for the most part lacking both rigour and charm, Winston's Folly does contain one or two interesting snippets. I did not know, or had forgotten, that Britain had briefly considered palming off its mandate for Palestine on to the Americans, or that it had toyed with the idea of installing Ibn Saud as king of Iraq. Catherwood revives some apposite quotations from Churchill about Iraq, such as his constant complaints about the fortune that the British taxpayer was paying for "the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano". George W Bush and Tony Blair would do well to take heed of the following, contemporary-sounding warning: "Week after week and month after month . . . we shall have a continuance of this miserable, wasteful, sporadic warfare marked from time to time certainly by minor disaster and cuttings off of troops and agents, and very possi- bly attended by some very grave occurrence."

Still, the reader must wade through an awful lot of dross in here to find anything useful or interesting. Anyone who really wants to understand Chur-chill's role in the Middle East would be better served by turning to Catherwood's bibliography and choosing some other book - for example, David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace.

Anton La Guardia is diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph