Iraq: Why there is no there there
In his later years, Sir Winston Churchill, the architect of Iraq, came to call Iraq, “That ungrateful volcano.” He even regretted not giving the Kurds their own nation when he, as British Colonial Secretary, had the power to do so.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, England, even though described by the great geographer, Sir Halford John Mackinder, as, “A lump of coal surrounded by fish,” began to see the need to switch the Royal Navy from coal to oil. So, prodded by Admiral “Jackie” Fisher and, later, by Winston Churchill, Great Britain looked for ways to assure its access to the oil of the Middle East.
The 1918 defeat of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire resulted in a League of Nations mandate for Britain and France to administer the Middle East. (Britain had already lost over 40,000 colonial troops in Mesopotamia and, at one time, had 410,000 troops stretched from Mosul to Basra.)
In 1921, Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, wanted to change Mesopotamia from British troops with Arab advisers to Arab troops with British advisers. That in mind, Churchill called the region’s sheiks to Cairo to divvy up Mesopotamia, while leaving Britain with access to its oil. Also invited were the Baghdad-based (female James Bond), Miss Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia).
One evening, during dinner with Churchill and Lawrence, Gertrude Bell laid a sheet of transparent paper on the table and sketched out her vision of Iraq. But her sketch was only partly based on natural borders of mountain ranges and rivers. Mostly, it was designed to ensure Britain would have de facto control of the oil-rich area around Basra, and that her favorite sheik would come to Baghdad to rule Iraq.
Bell’s sketch lumped together the Shia, the Sunnis and the Kurds inside lines and angles reminiscent of an engineering student playing with a Leroy Set. But Lawrence of Arabia agreed with Bell’s design, and Churchill signed off on it.
Thus, the founding of Iraq brings to mind Gertrude Stein’s famous statement about her former hometown of Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”
But that does not mean the U.S. cannot secure its vital interests around the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, to include Iraq. On September 25, 2006, this space was used to suggest the Arabian Peninsula is, essentially, an island and to remind readers of that strategic reality that whoever controls the waters around an island, controls the island.
Thus, the appointment of a Navy Admiral to command CENTCOM, which, previously, has always been commanded by Army or Marine Generals, signals a major shift in U.S. policy. In fact, President Bush just ordered another carrier task force to the Persian Gulf.
Apparently, we will place less reliance on tactical ground troops and more reliance on our strategic undersea and surface naval forces. Lurking underneath the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, to include the waters lapping the shores of Iran, are enormous conventional and nuclear forces.
Meanwhile, Iran, Syria and other trouble-makers in the region are painfully aware that Navy Admiral at CENTCOM has his finger on weapons capable of returning them to the Agricultural Age – the last time when Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus were of actual importance.
So, the current surge of ground forces into Baghdad and Anbar Province not withstanding, the change of command at CENTCOM may herald a shift away from trying to make a democratic silk purse out of a quarrelsome sow’s ear and toward the more realistic mission of oil-facility security. At the same time, we could punish the Iranians, the Syrians and the Turks by supporting the creation of a separate Kurdistan.
Therefore, despite the November election victory of some who would cut and run, President Bush still has the power to shape much of what happens in the Middle East, to include what happens inside the rim of “that ungrateful volcano.”
Syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and a former research fellow at the U.S. Military History Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2007. William Hamilton.