As President Bush steers the U.S. toward war, history offers a sobering lesson.
For two centuries, foreign powers have been conquering Mideast lands for their own purposes, promising to uplift Arab societies along the way. Sometimes they have modernized cities, taught new ideas and brought technologies.
But in nearly every incursion, both sides have endured a raft of unintended consequences. From Napoleon's drive into Egypt through Britain's rule of Iraq in the 1920s to Israel's march into Lebanon in 1982, Middle East nations have tempted conquerors only to send them reeling.
Little wonder that even many Arabs who revile Saddam Hussein view the prospect of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with trepidation. "Unless the Americans are far more subtle than they've ever had the capacity to be, and more subtle than the [colonial] British, it's going to end in tears," predicts Faisal Istrabadi, an Iraqi-born lawyer in Michigan who has worked with the State Department on plans to rebuild Iraq's judiciary. "The honeymoon will be very brief."
Again and again, Westerners have moved into the Mideast with confidence that they can impose freedom and modernity through military force. Along the way they have miscalculated support for their invasions, both internationally and in the lands they occupy. They have anointed cooperative minorities to help rule resentful majorities. They have been mired in occupations that last long after local support has vanished. They have met with bloody uprisings and put them down with brute force.
"We tend to overlook a basic rule: that people prefer bad rule by their own kind to good rule by somebody else," says Boston University historian David Fromkin, author of a 1989 classic on colonialism's failures in the Mideast called "A Peace to End All Peace."
Mr. Bush says this invasion will be different. He has broadened his war aims in recent weeks from removing Mr. Hussein and any weapons of mass destruction to transforming Iraq into a beacon of freedom in the Middle East. In a news conference March 6, Mr. Bush said U.S. troops would remain to help run Iraq until a new, representative government could take control. With the passion of a convert to nation-building, he spoke movingly of confronting totalitarianism, of spreading "God's gift" of liberty "to each and every person," and of how "Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us."
Napoleon proclaimed a similar new era of equality and respect for "true Muslims" as he marched into Cairo in 1798, killing a thousand members of Egypt's ruling caste. He was accompanied by 100 French scientists, researching an encyclopedia and spreading European "enlightenment" to bemused Egyptian intellectuals.
"Peoples of Egypt, you will be told that I have come to destroy your religion," said Napoleon as he entered Cairo. "Do not believe it! Reply that I have come to restore your rights!"
Napoleon's real goals involved France's colonial rivalry with Britain. He sought to outflank the British and frustrate their efforts to find a new route to India. But the French committed a fatal error, repeated by nearly all Western powers since: attempting to divide and rule by appointing minority groups to govern hostile majority populations.
The French teamed up with fellow Christians — members of Egypt's minority Coptic sect — to govern the majority Muslims. Resentment grew as hundreds of unveiled women paraded around town with the French interlopers, flouting Islamic ideals of modesty. "One saw low-class women mixing with the French because of their liberality and their liking for the female sex," wrote Egyptian historian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti.
Months after the French arrival, Islamic clerics stirred a mob to rebellion, killing 300 Frenchmen. In revenge, the French bombarded Cairo. French troops stormed the city, killing 3,000 Cairenes and ransacking the chief mosque of al-Azhar on horseback. "The people of Cairo were overwhelmed with disdain, abasement at the despoiling and looting of wealth by the French," Mr. al-Jabarti observed.
The French left within three years. Their influence remained in a modernizing dynasty that rose to power after the French retreat, employing French methods to make economic gains. But France itself lost both money and men from its Egyptian adventure.
Britain came next to Egypt, in 1882. Its takeover secured the Suez Canal route to its Indian Empire, but soon triggered a bloody revolt by nationalist Egyptian officers. For the next 40 years, British administrators ruled Egypt from behind the scenes in what was called the "veiled protectorate," fashioning themselves as liberators of Egypt's feudal peasants. But several incidents helped make Egypt a center of anti-Western fervor, among them the brutal punishment of villagers when a fracas with British officers out on a pigeon hunt left an officer dead.
British troops landed in what's now Iraq in 1914, as part of Britain's campaign against the Ottoman Turks, allies of Germany in World War I. "Britain was bursting then with confidence in an easy and early victory," wrote British officer T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who organized the historic Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. Instead, it took four years for Britain, with vastly superior arms, to conquer all of Iraq.
Capturing Baghdad after the first three years, they offered almost the same salutation as Napoleon had in Cairo. "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," trumpeted Gen. F.S. Maude, commander of the British forces in Iraq. "Your wealth has been stripped of you by unjust men ... The people of Baghdad shall flourish under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws ... The Arab race may rise once more to greatness!"
But Britain retained the Ottomans' long reliance on Sunni Muslims as the governing class in Iraq, an arrangement that exacerbated conflicts with Iraq's larger Kurdish and Shia Muslim populations. It didn't help when the British lobbed artillery shells on the Shia holy city of Najaf, a main source of anticolonial resistance. British troops killed 6,000 to 10,000 Iraqis in putting down a joint revolt by Shia and Sunni Muslims in 1920.
To suppress later rebellions by Iraq's Kurds, the British invented the technique of strafing civilian rebels from the air. As for Gen. Maude, he succumbed to cholera eight months after he reached Baghdad.
In 1921, to establish a semblance of local rule, the British brought a leader of the Arab Revolt out of exile in London and anointed him king of Iraq. King Faisal was the scion of a ruling family based some 2,000 miles from Baghdad in Mecca, on the Arabian peninsula. He had already been installed as king of Syria in 1918 and then deposed by the French.
He did better in Iraq, under the tutelage of an indefatigable British diplomat named Gertrude Bell. Describing Iraq as "an inchoate mass of tribes," Miss Bell traversed the sweltering hinterlands meeting the leaders of every tribe. "She took Faisal by the hand from great sheiks to rabbis to every nobleman: 'Here he is, listen to him, we need your support,' " says Janet Wallach, who published a biography of Miss Bell in 1996.
Years later, Mr. Hussein would make Iraq's tribes a bulwark of his own regime. To this day, when Saddam greets military commanders on television, he cites their tribal affiliations and sends greetings to their tribal chief. "We don't have anybody to do that, who has the ear of so many people," Ms. Wallach says.
Despite Britain's setbacks during its 40-year domination of Iraq, which lasted for a quarter-century after Iraq's independence in 1932, it was arguably more successful than any of the other Western invasions of the region. Some Iraqis still recall the time as a golden age of order, education and development. But the British and their chosen kings could never win over their subjects, and deliberately frustrated the Iraqis' desires for an independent political culture.
In a 17-point memo for fellow British officers, Lawrence of Arabia warned: "The foreigner and Christian is not a popular person in Arabia. However friendly and informal the treatment of yourself may be, remember always that your foundations are very sandy ones."
When King Faisal's son, Faisal II, was overthrown in 1958 by Iraqi Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem, the king and his family were torn limb from limb by a Baghdad mob. Since then, apart from a mid-1970s spurt of economic growth fueled by the oil boom, Iraq's political history has been one of coups, purges, wars and tyranny.
As Britain's long run in Iraq was nearing an end, the U.K. created new problems in the Middle East. After Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, the British, French and Israelis invaded the canal zone. The trio of countries were forced to acquiesce in Egypt's nationalization after a diplomatic standoff with the U.S. and other nations. At home, anger at the mishandled invasion cost Prime Minister Anthony Eden his job. In the Mideast, it fostered perceptions of a Western-Israeli effort to dominate the region, helping to radicalize Arab nationalists.
"Something about the Middle East leads people to miscalculate," says Robert Parker, a retired U.S. diplomat who helped resolve the Suez crisis.
Israel, too, overplayed its hand in a Mideast nation, in its surge into Lebanon in 1982 to crush Palestinian guerrillas. Though a Mideast country itself, with many Jewish immigrants from Islamic countries, Israel is seen by many Arabs as a Western implant in the region. Its march to Beirut typified the problems outsiders face when conquering Arab lands, say some Israeli officers who were involved.
Shia villagers in Lebanon at first welcomed Israeli troops as liberators from Palestinian fighters who had made the border region a war zone, recalls Israeli Brig. Gen. Amatzia Chen. But as Ariel Sharon, then Israel's defense minister, pushed his forces to the outskirts of Beirut, where they killed thousands of civilians, the offensive stalled amid furious criticism in Europe, the U.S. and Israel itself. The once-grateful Shiites turned against the Israelis as occupiers, and efforts to impose a peace agreement on Lebanon through Israel's Maronite Christian allies blew up in a fury of bombings and killings.
"The idea that you can change the Middle East with guns and bayonets is wrong," says Bob Dillon, U.S. ambassador to Beirut at the time.
Some in Israel worry U.S. leaders may harbor the same illusions in Iraq that Israel brought with it to Lebanon. If the Americans conquer Baghdad, says reserve Col. Meir Pial, author of a dozen military histories, "they'll have to sponsor a new government. It will be seen by the people as a government cooperating with the conqueror, so it will need support." He predicts that "the longer the Americans stay, the deeper they will find themselves in the mud."
Bush administration officials acknowledge the minefield they're facing but express confidence the U.S., with its record of democratizing defeated tyrannies in Germany and Japan, can succeed in Iraq. In particular, the administration believes it will avoid past pitfalls by mounting a devastating military strike and following it quickly with billions of dollars in reconstruction and humanitarian aid, according to a Bush official. U.S. officials are also optimistic that Iraq, with its deep-rooted educational and civil-service systems, its history of secularism, its utter exhaustion after three decades of totalitarianism — and its oil wealth — is exceptionally ready to leapfrog forward.
"Iraq's a sophisticated society," Mr. Bush said on March 6. "Iraq's got money ... Iraq will serve as a catalyst for change, positive change."
U.S. officials have been busy for months organizing committees of exiled Iraqis on every aspect of political and economic reconstruction, even reaching out to Iraqi Shiite groups based in Iran. The U.S. realizes, says William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Mideast affairs, that "the day after the shooting stops, life must get better for Iraqis."
A longtime student of Mideast history, Mr. Burns realizes something else. "I have always thought that a certain amount of humility is important in applying American power in the Middle East," he told a public forum in San Francisco last month. "Iraq is a very complicated society. This is going to require an enormous amount of support, not just from us but from others in the world. This is not a challenge the U.S. can take on itself."online.wsj.com/article_email/0,,SB104802384328857700,00.htmlE-mail this article