The Primer George Bush Should Have Read!

Book Review:

Understanding Iraq
by William R. Polk
Harper Perennial, 2005

by Vilosh Vinograd

What are we to make of a book subtitled “The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, From Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation,” which nonetheless clocks in at just over 200 pages of fairly large print?

William Polk’s Understanding Iraq is an ambitious primer aimed at those who are starting from near-total ignorance and want to get up to speed fast. It is a shame that he didn’t write it until after Bush had invaded, and after the situation had descended into a bloody quagmire. Maybe, just maybe, if Bush had read a book like this before March 2003, the world could have been spared this nightmare. It is simple and concise enough even for him to understand, and it makes a damn good case for the inevitability of the current disaster.

Harvard man Polk reads both Arabic and Turkish, and is fond of showing off his abilities to the reader, peppering the text with translated words and phrases. From 1961 to ’65 he was the Middle East pointman for the State Department’s Policy Planning Council. He then moved on to found the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago. Continuing to lecture in such rarefied circles as the Council on Foreign Relations, he also seems to have maintained a friendship with the rulers of Iraq and other Arab lands even after his State Department years. In short, he is an exponent of the Arabophile wing of the ruling elites, who have been fuming on the sidelines since the ascendance of the neo-cons, with their perceived allegiance to Israel and their belligerent antipathy to nearly all the Arab regimes. Therefore, Understanding Iraq provides a good antidote to the neo-con dogma, but suffers from certain prejudices of its own.

The book actually begins well before the Mongols, with the dawn of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia. The first two chapters, “Ancient Iraq” and “Islamic Iraq,” ambitiously cover 6,000 years in 53 pages, and also contain a couple of howlers which are embarrassing for a scholar of Polk’s stature. For instance, he has Alexander the Great moving on to conquer Egypt after defeating the Persian armies at Gaugamela in contemporary Iraq; in fact, it was other way around. (Back in the days when you could assume editors at big New York publishing houses all had classical training, such an error would have been caught.)

The rise of Islam, the early schism between the Sunnis and Shi’ites, and the ascendance of a powerful Arab empire with Baghdad as its capital are all presented in sweeping summary, like a video on fast-forward. The climax of these two opening chapters is Hulagu Khan’s sacking of Baghdad in 1258, which marked the final end of the Arab empire’s glory and is presented as a template for ruthless destruction by an outside invader—the “shock and awe” of its day. (In another questionable call, he refers to Hulagu as a Buddhist; some evidence suggests he had been converted in name, but he was almost certainly still a shamanist at heart—mass murder would seem rather un-Buddhist behavior.)

The hurried pace continues through the subsequent centuries in which what is now Iraq was contested by the Ottoman Turkish and Safavid Persian empires, exacerbating the Sunni-Shi’ite division. It isn’t until Ottoman rule is followed by British at the end of World War I that Polk starts to slow down, and his real political points start to kick in.

Here’s where you’d hope today’s policy-makers had paid more attention to history. Polk’s “British Iraq” is a study in imperial hubris. Favoring prominent tribal leaders with access to land and local fiefdoms, the British hoped to groom a class of proxy rulers under the Hashemite King Faisal they installed in power. This only sparked an angry backlash from the peasantry. Following a series of meetings during the holy month of Ramadan, in which nationalist leaders agreed to put aside Sunni-Shi’ite differences, Iraq exploded into rebellion on June 30, 1920. Britain almost eagerly viewed this a test war, providing some of military history’s first effective use of aerial bombardment. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill especially argued for the use of poison gas as a means to awe the primitives into submission.

But the populace was more enraged than awed. Polk culls some choice quotes to convey the sense of deepening quagmire (and, for contemporary readers, deja vu). In an August 1920 letter to the London Times, Col. TE Lawrence (“of Arabia”) wrote: “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete… We are today not far from disaster.”

As for the propaganda that Britain had liberated Iraq from oriental despotism, Lawrence wrote: “Our government is worse than the old Turkish system. They kept fourteen thousand local conscripts embodied and killed a yearly average of two hundred Arabs in maintaining peace. We keep ninety thousand men, with aeroplanes, armoured cars, gunboats and armoured trains. We killed about ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer. We cannot hope to maintain such an average: it is a poor country, sparsely populated.” Ultimately, he did not send the letter, deeming it too gloomy for public consumption.

That same month, Secretary Churchill wrote in a letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George: “Week after week and month after month for a long time to come we shall have a continuance of this miserable, wasteful, sporadic warfare… It is an extraordinary thing that the…civil administration should have succeeded in such a short time in alienating the whole country to such an extent that the Arabs have laid aside the blood feuds that they have nursed for centuries and that the Sun[n]i and Shiah tribes are working together.”

The British administrator for Iraq, Arnold Wilson (who had written in a 1918 dispatch to London that “the Arabs are content with our occupation”), was removed and his replacement Sir Percy Cox appointed a provisional “Council of State” as a move towards self-rule. This bought a modicum of peace. But, amazingly, Britain was not humbled by the explosion its arrogance provoked. A 1922 treaty with the monarchy affirmed the eventual goal of independence for Iraq but reserved to Britain the right to control foreign policy, the army and finance even after this. This merely recapitulated the terms of the League of Nations mandate, but it made the regime officially complicit in the national humiliation.

Even more amazing is the depth of British ignorance about the land they were conquering. In a June 1921 letter to his colonial office aide, Churchill wrote: “Let me have a note in about three lines, as to [King] Feisal’s religious character. Is he a Sunni with Shaih [sic] sympathies, or a Shaih [sic] with Sunni sympathies, or how does he square it? What is [his father] Hussein? Which is the aristocratic high church and which is the low church? What are the religious people at Kerbela [sic]? I always get mixed up between these two.”

The disenfranchisement of the peasantry continued apace. In 1925 the British high commissioner wrote in a report to the League of Nations on progress in Iraq that “all lands excluding urban freehold properties belong primarily to the state and that good title to such lands can only be obtained in consequence of alienation by Government…” This amounted to expropriation of the peasantry’s ancestral lands, and their privatization to a new capitalist class largely based in the cities. This was concomitant with reclamation works such as pump-irrigation projects for tracts along the rivers, allowing greater production and economies of scale. A 1927 report to the League of Nations flatly stated: “The prospective pump-owner is usually an enterprising capitalist townsman, lacking land and anxious to develop a portion of the Domains already subject to tribal occupation.” So the improvements, ironically, brought greater privation to the struggling peasantry.

In 1933, Law 28, “Governing the Rights and Duties of Cultivators,” made formerly free peasants virtual serfs to new absentee landlords by imposing stringent responsibility for debts and the risks of agriculture.

In 1927, oil production began at Kirkuk under the control of the British-dominated Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC). Few Iraqis were initially employed or reaped economic benefit.

Britain also played an ethnic divide-and-rule card to pacify the country—which the locals would eventually pay for in harsh inter-ethnic reprisals. With the Sunni and Shi’ite peasantry largely united against the occupation, Assyrian Christian refugees from Turkish Anatolia were armed and trained as a British proxy force known as the “levies.”

In 1932, the mandate ended and Iraq became officially independent, although still under the compliant regime of King Faisal. But the following year Faisal died, and his more nationalist son Ghazi took power. The Assyrian levies were crushed by the new Arab army which then consolidated, led by officers trained under the Turks. Reprisals against Assyrian civilians claimed many lives.

King Ghazi was killed in a mysterious car crash in 1939, and a pro-British regent took power in stead of his infant son. During World War II history seemed to repeating itself in Iraq. In 1941, the British re-occupied the country after an abortive coup against the regent in favor of Rashid Ali, the nationalist prime minister. Ali fled to Germany, and the pro-British foreign minister Nuri Said filled his shoes. Sunnis and Shi’ites again united in a jihad against the British, this time with encouragement from Germany. This was suppressed, but more unrest would follow. A 1945 strike by railroad workers spread to the Kirkuk oil fields, and was joined by student protests—all put down harshly

Home rule was again restored as the war ended, but the United States increasingly stepped into Britain’s role as the power behind the throne. In 1955, Nuri Said, still prime minister, established the Baghdad Pact with the US to oppose the influence of Gamal Nasser’s nationalist revolution in Egypt.

And again, this only provoked a backlash—this time, one that would change the political face of Iraq for more than a generation. The 1958 nationalist coup d’etat ushered in the era Polk calls “Revolutionary Iraq.” Nuri Said was put to death. After some initial jockeying among the rival officers, Abdul Karim Qasim emerged as Iraq’s new leader. But his reign was a precarious one, having to balance the rival tendencies of Nasserism and Ba’athism, a more extreme and “mystical” (although secular) exponent of Arab nationalism founded a decade earlier in Damascus. (A third pillar of this uneasy regime, and by far the weakest, was the Communist Party.) A 1959 attempt on Kasim’s life was made by a young Ba’ath militant named Saddam Hussein. Here, Polk’s wry anecdotal material makes its first appearance. He recounts being shown by a proud Qasim the blood-stained uniform he kept in a glass case. “They were not professionals, not serious,” the ruler told the author. “You always fire a second burst. They didn’t. Too bad for them.”

Polk describes how both the Nasserists and Ba’athists exploited and wrestled with two basically contradictory conceptions of Arab nationalism: wataniyah, allegiance to the watan, or geographical nation; and qawmiyah, allegiance to the ethnic nation, which transcends state boundaries. Pan-Arabism glorified the qawm and saw the watan as a “perversion hatched by imperialism.” Yet the contest for which strongman and capital would lead the Arab nation threw the rival factions back into wataniyah. Betrayal of qawmiyah was therefore a convenient charge against opponents, but accommodation with wataniyah seemed an inevitable consequence of maintaining power.

As the nationalists engaged in court intrigues, what Polk calls “political Islam” began to emerge as an opposition movement: the Iraqi branch of the Egyptian-founded Muslim Brotherhood among the Sunnis, the more homegrown and influential Dawa Party among the Shi’ites.

Qasim was finally ousted in a February 1963 coup and put to death. Col. Abdus-Salam Arif, a fellow nationalist officer Qasim had fallen out with and imprisoned, was installed as president, and the Ba’athist Hasan al-Bakr as prime minister. Thousands were killed in a purge said to have been overseen by the CIA, which favored the Ba’athists for thier anti-communism. But Arif ousted al-Bakr and the Ba’athists in a November counter-coup—only to be killed himself in a (mysterious, of course) 1966 helicopter crash. He was followed in power by his brother Abdur-Rahman Arif. But the Ba’ath Party exploited Iraq’s failure to join the ’67 war against Israel, portraying this as a betrayal of the qawm. Ironically assisted by the US once again, the Ba’athists ousted the regime in another coup the following year.

Polk describes how Saddam Hussien rose to power in the regime’s intelligence apparatus, collecting files on everyone for purposes of blackmail and manipulation in the style of J. Edgar Hoover or East Germany’s Stasi. He also became as adept at divide-and-rule as the British before him. Under his direction, Shi’ites became the regime’s official scapegoats. Among the executed Shi’ite leaders was the father of Moktada al-Sadr, the contemporary militia leader. Gruesome public hangings were held. Scorched-earth campaigns were also launched against the Kurds in the north.

But there were populist carrots as well as repressive sticks. The regime instated an agrarian reform that restored some status and security to the peasantry. Strides were made in education and industry. Most importantly, in 1971 the IPC (then consisting largely of British Petroleum, Shell, Esso and Mobil) was nationalized.

Given his exacting account of the coups and counter-coups of the ’60s, it is surprising that Polk does not even note the 1979 putsch in which Saddam consolidated total power. But he does note how the subsequent war with revolutionary Iran made Saddam’s Iraq useful to the United States, oil nationalization notwithstanding. Iraq was removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist sponsors (and Iran added) weeks after presidential envoy Donald Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to meet with Saddam in December ’83.

As harshly as Polk treats Saddam, his descriptions of this period betray him as an old “Arab hand” who by his own admission remained on good terms with high-ranking figures in the Baghdad regime. He does not hedge on the reality that Saddam’s 1988 poison-gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja was an atrocity, but does perhaps clean it up a little. He claims leaflets were dropped to warn the inhabitants of the impending attack. By most accounts, the leaflets were dropped to determine wind direction, and contained no warnings.

He sees a tilt against Iraq in Washington by the late ’80s, portrayed as a design of the then-emergent “Neo-Cons,” an appellation he always capitalizes. He concedes that Saddam’s “brutal policies…made him deeply unpopular,” but seems sorry that Washington was turning against him, and may even overstate the degree to which it, in fact, did. He writes that “by 1990” the US press and Voice of America were “talking about his overthrow.” But was this the case before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August of that year?

Polk’s discussion of the invasion will shock many readers. He notes that Kuwait provoked Saddam by keeping oil prices low (through high output) when Iraq needed to rebuild following the long war with Iran, which had been undertaken in the first place with the encouragement of the Gulf mini-states, to protect them from potential Iranian subversion or aggression. Then, he was given a “green light” for the invasion by US ambassador April Glaspie, who told him Washington had no position on border disputes between Arab states.

The portrayal of Saddam as goaded into the invasion is convincing. Less so is Polk’s semi-apologia for the argument that Kuwait was an historical part of geographic Iraq, which Saddam was entitled to recover. By way of analogy, Polk invokes Jawaharlal Nehru’s nearly forgotten 1961 invasion and annexation of Goa, the Portuguese coastal enclave, on the grounds that it was an historical part of geographic India.

Kuwait was never part of the state of Iraq. Before British imperialism carved new states out of the Ottoman Empire, there was no Iraq, and no Kuwait. Polk acknowledges that Kuwait became a British protectorate in the late 19th century, while Iraq did not even exist as a concept until after World War I. The confusion over the Iraq-Kuwait border stemmed from the fact that in 1932, when Iraq became independent, it was all remote desert that nobody wanted. It subsequently became an area coveted for oil exploitation, claimed by both sides. Polk also notes that Saddam was angered by Kuwait’s unscrupulous use of “slant” oil drilling technology to tap reserves under Iraqi soil. However, he fails to remark that this technology was developed and supplied by Santa Fe International, whose board members included Brent Scowcroft, US National Security Advisor at the time of Operation Desert Storm.

India’s claim to Goa was arguably no stronger than Iraq’s claim to Kuwait, but Nehru’s invasion wasn’t carried out with the kind of brutality Saddam used in ’90—even discounting the fictional atrocities which were created by the Kuwaiti regime and its PR firm. And Kuwait was at least ostensibly independent in 1990, whereas Goa was an outright Portuguese colony in 1961. So the fact that “Goa had no oil” wasn’t the only difference.

Still, whatever the merits of Saddam’s annexation, it indisputable that George HW Bush wanted war. He acknowledged as much in his memoir, A World Transformed (co-written with Scowcroft). In another telling quote Polk presents, the elder Bush relates hearing a news report in the midst of Desert Storm stating (inaccurately, it turned out) that Saddam had agreed to capitulate to the UN’s demands and withdraw from Kuwait. “Instead of feeling exhilarated, my heart sank,” Poppy wrote.

Polk is appropriately outraged that the US acquiesced when Saddam exacted brutal vengeance against the Shi’ites and Kurds who had revolted against the regime with Bush’s encouragement in the aftermath of Desert Storm. But his account is ambiguous. Writing of the Shi’ite rebellion centered in Basra, he states: “The American commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, allowed Saddam’s regime to use helicopter gunships against the rebels. On the ground, the American forces allowed attacking Iraqi army troops to pass unopposed through their positions and even defended arsenals to prevent Shiis from arming themselves.” The affair was indisputably shameful, but Polk doesn’t explain how US forces were in a position to be that intimately complicit in the repression, given that they never actually occupied Basra, but held off just outside the city. It was perhaps more akin to Stalin holding his armies back at the very gates of Warsaw in September 1944 to give the Nazis time to put down the uprising in the city, sparing the Red Army the trouble.

Polk accepts that it was wise of Poppy Bush to leave Saddam in power. A particularly prescient passage he quotes from A World Transformed shows the elder Bush as far more savvy and realistic than the younger. Polk only uses the chilling final sentence of a paragraph which is worth quoting in full: “Trying to eliminate Saddam…would have incurred incalculable human and political costs… We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq…. [T]here was no viable ‘exit strategy’ we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”

Polk’s chapter “American Iraq” actually begins in 1990, because starting then “it has been mostly American action that has determined events.” He portrays the sanctions which were imposed after Desert Storm as placing Saddam in a double-bind, unable to sell oil to raise funds to pay the war reparations which were a prerequisite for lifting the sanctions. The real motive, Polk argues, was to destabilize the regime. Saddam rode out the crisis by falling back on tribalism and nepotism, particularly favoring his own al-Majid clan as local administrators and enforcers.

This section too contains some inexplicable contentions. Polk has the no-fly zone that the US and its allies established in northern Iraq lasting “until 1998.” We hadn’t heard that it was lifted before the US invasion of March 2003.

Still apparently on good terms with the regime he acknowledges was tyrannical, Polk flew to Baghdad in February 2003, where deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz told him (with good reason, hindsight reveals): “America has long since decided to attack Iraq and nothing Iraq could do would prevent it.” Days later, Colin Powell gave his famous pitch at the UN for the case (which he has since disavowed) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Polk’s final chapter raises the question: “Whose Iraq?” His depiction of the US occupation as an unmitigated disaster needn’t be elaborated on. Bush has replicated the worst errors of his British forebears, and reaped an even stronger insurgency. Moves to “liberalize” the economy, throwing thousands out of work and exacerbating the decline of industry, and especially the occupation authority’s control-by-fiat of the oil industry, are all redolent of the British hubris of the 1920s.

Unfortunately, Polk lays himself bare to charges of overstating his case, which would hardly seem necessary. For instance, he cites without caveat the figure of 100,000 civilian deaths in the bombing and subsequent fighting in Iraq, published in the November 2004 issue of the Lancet medical journal, based on the findings of a team from Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities that conducted interviews with Iraqi doctors. But this figure has been widely questioned. The far more cautious findings of the Iraq Body Count database, based on a global monitoring of press accounts, puts the ever-rising number of Iraqi civilian deaths since March 2003 at a maximum of nearly 50,000 as we go to press. Since the more cautious figures are ghastly enough, why go with the possibly exaggerated ones?

But Polk’s greater error, paradoxically, may be one of unwarranted optimism. He writes that “foreign occupation has at least temporarily driven the Sunni and Shia Iraqi Arabs together in common cause.” Is there much evidence for this? The Sunni insurgents seem as intent on killing Shi’ite civilians and blowing up Shi’ite mosques as fighting the occupation forces. Shi’ite death squads seem quite busy exacting grisly reprisals against Sunnis. The fighting in Iraq seems much more like a sectarian civil war than a national liberation struggle at the moment. This is where the analogy to the 1920s insurgency against the British breaks down. It is “political Islam,” not Arab nationalism, which today dominates the scene.

It is all too clear that Bush’s blundering invasion “has created an entirely new form of instability for Iraq and greatly increased danger for America.” And the solutions Polk advises in his closing pages do seem the best bet: Bush should admit defeat and withdraw, as Charles de Gaulle did from Algeria in 1962; the UN should step in with peacekeepers to oversee new elections untainted by an American military presence, and the return of real sovereign control of the oil to the new regime. Ironically, Polk warns against establishing an Iraqi national army, pointing to Iraq’s sorry history of military meddling in politics. But this recommendation goes against his thesis that national sovereignty must be fully restored for there to be peace.

The more serious weakness is his assumption that if the US withdraws as France did from Algeria, “fighting will quickly die down as it did there and in all other guerilla wars.” Attacks on oil infrastructure now prevent recovery of this critical sector, but “when the Americans leave, those attacks will cease.”

Writers should be wary of predicting the future. If we are to advocate a US withdrawal, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that it could initially lead to an increase in violence, as sectarian factions perceive that the political order is up for grabs. The US has played a divide-and-rule card at least as aggressively as either the British or Saddam, and the cost in local reprisals has been far worse, actually becoming inimical to the aim of a stable occupation. As the perceived protector of the Shi’ites and Kurds, the US presence antagonizes the Sunni Arabs, and the cycle of vengeance has now taken on a life of its own. The painful paradox may be that a post-withdrawal conflagration is now inevitable, but the longer the US remains in Iraq the worse it will be.

If we think we stand any chance of really pressuring the US to withdraw, we had better inoculate ourselves now against charges of betraying the Iraqis to a sectarian maelstrom. Bush got us into this mess through his apparent utopian assumption that his invasion would bring democracy and stability on short order. Let’s not replicate his error.



William R. Polk’s homepage

Iraq Body Count


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Oct. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution