The British made many of the same nation-building mistakes in the 1920s

To anyone who knows the history of Iraq, the fierce resistance directed at the American forces occupying the country will come as no surprise. America’s British allies encountered an early 20th-century version of the same when they attempted to cobble three Ottoman provinces into an Iraqi nation between 1914 and 1932.

Awareness of that dismal chapter was one reason the British Foreign Office’s Arabists thought charging into Iraq last March wasn’t such a great idea.

The similarities between British efforts in Iraq in the 1920s and America’s now are “striking,” writes British political scientist Toby Dodge in a new book called Inventing Iraq- The Failure of Nation-Building and a History Denied. Like the Bush Administration today, the British claimed to have the noblest of intentions toward Iraq, which they were liberating from the despotic and backward Ottomans. But Iraqis then, like many today, did not appreciate the virtues of English tutelage. The British faced a bitter and bloody revolt in 1920 in which some 6,000 Iraqis and 500 British and Indian soldiers died. When the beleaguered British gave Iraq nominal independence in 1932, they left a legacy of instability that continues to the present. The Hashemite royal family installed by the British, starting with King Faisal I in 1921, was extinguished in a hail of bullets in 1958, giving way to a succession of dictators that culminated with Saddam Hussein.

Like their British counterparts in the 1920s, American policymakers failed to understand that by invading Iraq they weren’t so much liberating a bunch of democrats-in-waiting but stirring up a hornets’ nest. Saddam was a brutal leader, but he needs to be placed in the context of Iraqi history. Saddam, writes Dodge, a fellow at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, “must be understood less as the cause of Iraq’s violent political culture and more as the symptom.” Iraqi political institutions are so poorly developed that the country’s rulers have come to rely on a mixture of extreme violence, networks of patronage and graft, and the exploitation of religious and ethnic divisions to maintain their grip.

Shatter this system, as the U.S. has done, and you send the hornets buzzing around looking for someone to sting. Washington blames the attacks on U.S. personnel and those working with them on remnants of Saddam’s regime or on foreign terrorists. But nearly everyone in Iraq depended directly or indirectly on the regime, and thousands of people have motives to strike at Americans — from the loss of jobs to deaths of relatives at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

Washington should do a lot more listening to Iraqi concerns. Far from winning hearts and minds, the American regime is deeply unpopular with elements of the large Sunni Muslim minority, Saddam’s sect, which inhabits a huge strategic belt around Baghdad. The majority Shiites in the south and center of the country are less restive but still suspicious of U.S. designs. Only the long-oppressed Kurdish minority in the north is firmly in the U.S. camp.

L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. Civil Administrator, needs to avoid making the same mistakes in setting up local government as the British did. The British relied strongly on the Sunni elite, which grabbed power and privilege for itself, alienating the Shiite heartland. Similarly, there is a danger that returning Iraqi exiles will take advantage of their ties to the American authorities to pack the ministries with their associates, putting them in a position to wield disproportionate influence. The U.S. would be better off allowing grassroots institutions run by local Iraqis to take hold, as the British are doing in southern Iraq. So far, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council — which includes prominent returnees such as Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress – has failed to win broad support.

The U.S. should also go slow on privatization. What Iraqis want is rule of law and a return to basic services and normal economic activity. They don’t want to be subjects of an ideologically-inspired U.S. demonstration project for the region.

At this point, it is still unlikely that the U.S. forces will retreat humiliated. As a power, the U.S. is in a different league from Britain of the 1920s, whose imperial star was already fading. A flood of American money may eventually co-opt enough Iraqis to turn the tide. But unless the U.S. learns some lessons about the nature of Iraq, it will be doomed to months if not years more of death and disillusionment.