America, Britain and the perils of empire.
Middle East turmoil of 1919 offers important lessons for today
General Sir Philip Chetwode, deputy chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff, warned in 1919: “The habit of interfering with other people’s business and making what is euphoniously called ‘peace’ is like buggery; once you take to it, you cannot stop.”
It is difficult to imagine any member of the Obama administration making such an eyebrow-raising comparison. But, as the US struggles to cope with turmoil across the Middle East, Sir Philip’s complaint – quoted in David Reynolds’s recent book, The Long Shadow – has a contemporary ring to it. Even more so the lament of his boss, Sir Henry Wilson, the chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff, who complained in 1919 that -”we have between 20 and 30 wars raging in the world” and blamed the chaotic international situation on political leaders who were “totally unfit and unable to govern”.
Britain was directly or indirectly involved in the fighting in many of these wars during the years 1919-1920. Their locations sound familiar: Afghanistan, Waziristan, Iraq, Ukraine, the Baltic states. Only Britain’s involvement in a war in Ireland would ring no bells in the modern White House. The British debates, and recriminations of the time are also strongly reminiscent of the arguments that are taking place in modern America. And how events panned out holds some important lessons for today’s policy makers.
The British military effort in Iraq in 1920, like the allied effort today, was conducted largely through aerial bombing. Then, as now, there was strong scepticism about the long-term chances of achieving political stability in such an unpromising environment. AJ Balfour, the British foreign secretary complained – “We are not going to spend all our money and men in civilising a few people who do not want to be civilised.” In an echo of America’s current Middle East confusion, even British policy makers knew that they were pursuing contradictory goals. As Professor Reynolds points out – “The British had got themselves into a monumental mess in the Middle East, signing agreements that, as Balfour later admitted, were ‘not consistent with each other’.”
Then, as now, even the people making policy seemed confused about the motives for military intervention in the Middle East – was it “making peace” as Gen Chetwode suggested, was it the rich oil reserves of the area, was it the protection of another territory (India for the British, Israel for the Americans), or was it simply a vague sense that imperial prestige was at stake? The debates in London, almost a century ago, as in Washington today, suggested that all these motives were mixed together in ways that no one could completely disentangle.
Military leaders’ complaints about incompetent politicians also echo down the ages. Sir Henry’s lament about British political leaders who are “unable to govern” is matched by the increasing rumble of complaint about the leadership of Barack Obama. Even Mr Obama’s former defence secretary, Leon Panetta, has just complained that the US president “too often relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader”.
These comparisons between the British and American dilemmas, almost a century apart, are intriguing – but do they offer lessons? I would point to four.
First, while it is always tempting to blame political leaders, the problems often run far deeper than that. The British prime minister in 1919 was David Lloyd George, who most historians now regard as a decisive and dynamic leader. That did not prevent the imperial staff from complaining about the torpor and confusion of his administration. The real problem, however, was the intractable nature of the problems that Britain was facing, and the limits of the resources it could bring to bear.
Second, it is much harder to be a global policeman if your government’s finances are stretched and your country is war-weary. In 1919, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, British imperial possessions were more extensive than ever. But the UK was exhausted after the first world war and had little appetite for further conflict. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars of the past decade were small affairs, by comparison. But they left a similar reluctance in the US to get involved in further conflicts.
Third, the uncanny similarity between the trouble spots of a century ago and those of today suggests that there are some parts of the world where geography or culture create a permanent risk of political instability and war: the frontiers between Russia and the West, Afghanistan, Iraq.
In depth Syria crisis
An increasingly complicated armed conflict is pitting rebel groups not only against the regime and its allies, but also against each other
The idea that ‘twas ever thus’ may comfort contemporary policy makers in Washington, as they struggle to cope with multiple crises. Yet the fourth lesson derived from Britain’s travails in 1919 is less comforting. Many of the conflicts that the Imperial General Staff were struggling with did get resolved fairly swiftly. The western allies’ involvement in the Russian civil war was over by 1920, as the Bolsheviks moved towards victory. An uneasy peace was also re-established in Iraq. But Britain’s ability to impose its will on the world was waning. The political turmoil of 1919 was, in retrospect, an early sign that the world was entering a new period of instability that – within a generation – would lead to another shattering world war. Once the dominant global power loses its grip, the world can quickly become much less orderly.