Repeating History in Iraq

On Saturday, NPR reported on a paper by William Beeman, director of Middle East studies at Brown University.

The U.S.-led effort to bring stability and democracy to Iraq resonates with echoes of recent history. William Beeman ... has written about the tumultuous period after World War I, when Britain and France divided the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. New countries emerged, including Iraq, forged by arbitrary political boundaries.

In 1920, Beeman notes, Sunnis and Shiites held mass demonstrations in Baghdad that quickly grew into a full-scale revolt. Several months passed before the British could regain control, and thousands of lives were lost.

I went through Beeman's paper quickly. Most of the paper is dedicated to understanding Shi'ism and Shi'ite rivalries, and taking a stab at what a Shi'ite dominated government in Iraq would look like. As regards United States following in British footsteps:

From the perspective of Iraqi Shi'ites, the United States is neither better nor worse than the British seventy years ago. One would think that the situation would be improved today with all the hindsight at our disposal. The current Iraq crisis and the failed diplomatic interaction with Iran recapitulates almost every mistake the United States has made in Iraq since the beginning of the conflict. First the Bush administration listens to the wrong people. They take the wrong action, and then they try to blame someone else (like Iran) for their mistake. Finally they stand firm and repeat slogans to cover their ineffectiveness. Even when the people they try to blame are as denigrated as Iran, the world can see how pitifully weak both the actions and the excuses for these actions have become.

That much from Beeman. NPR's story is more about Gertrude Bell:

Among the British nationals who helped establish Iraq was Gertrude Bell. Fluent in Persian and Arabic, she founded an archaeological museum in Baghdad. In letters home, Bell made detailed observations about the new country and its people. Today, U.S. and British leaders are finding new value in her insights. Her letters are circulated at the Pentagon.

NPR provides a link to the Gertrude Bell Project, where you can read Bell's letters from 1874 to 1926. The letters are sorted only by year, so you'll have to go through them with your history book at your side to determine when she might have written about what.


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