Bliar, Bliar, pants on fire

18 June 2014

No surprise that Tony Bliar should claim this week that the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq in 2003 had played no part in the country’s current disintegration. Britain’s very own neo-con – a man willing to apologise for the slave trade that ended over a century before his birth – has never shown a similar inclination to accept responsibility for things that actually happened on his watch. However Bliar isn’t the only former British Prime Minister with blood on his hands over Iraq. Another even more famous one, bears ultimate responsibility for its ethnic and religious hatreds.

In the latter stages of the First World War, the defeats inflicted on Turkish forces by T.E. Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia” – and his army of Arab irregulars hastened the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence had recruited some of his Arab allies from what is now Syria with the promise of independence at the end of the war but it was never a promise that “perfidious Albion” had any intention of keeping; that region had already been promised to France as part of the Great Power carve-up of conquered territories.

At the war’s end, Britain also controlled other swathes of oil-rich, strategically important former Ottoman territories in the Middle East and in true Empire-style, at once took steps to formalise that control. One evening in 1921, T. E. Lawrence and Britain’s then Colonial Secretary, a certain Winston Churchill, sat down to dinner with a small group of advisers. Before the end of that evening, they had drawn the boundaries of an entirely new kingdom, created out of these former Ottoman territories.

The Ottomans had ruled the area as three quasi-independent provinces – a Kurdish province in the north, a Sunni one in the centre and a Shia province in the south. Despite a warning from an American missionary that ‘You are flying in the face of four millennia of history’, Churchill and Lawrence in their wisdom – if that is really the appropriate word here – decided to combine these three semi-independent regions into a single new kingdom. Then, to add insult to injury, they imported a puppet ruler  from Transjordan who had no connection with the region whatsoever, to be the new kingdom’s first ruler.

Unsurprisingly some of the inhabitants took up arms against this British-imposed fait accompli, and perhaps equally unsurprisingly, were then ruthlessly suppressed by British forces using bombers, armoured cars and machine guns against tribesmen often armed with little more than antique hunting rifles.

Ibn Saud, the most powerful of the tribal leaders in the region we now call Saudi Arabia, had territorial ambitions of his own in the region, and also took up arms against the British but was then pacified – bought off – with the gift of two-thirds of the territory of the genuinely ancient kingdom of Kuwait. That particular piece of history may help to explain Saudi Arabia’s willingness to underwrite almost the entire cost of the first Gulf War in 1991 for, had Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait been allowed to succeed, his next step would surely have been to attempt to reclaim those lost Kuwaiti territories, now some of the principal oil-producing regions of Saudi Arabia.

I’m sure I don’t have to spell out the name of the new kingdom that Churchill and Lawrence had ‘designed over dinner’ in Lawrence’s famous phrase, nor the consequences of that experiment with regime change for the country itself, for Britain and for the world at large ever since. What they created and what by turns, Britain, the region’s puppet “kings”, its military dictator, Saddam Hussein, and more recently a regime installed and preserved through military power of an Anglo-American occupying army, is now apparently falling apart.

Those who fail to learn the lessons of history…