Gertrude Bell

A quick break from the finance and economic treadmill, although it was not the original reason I starting reading it, Gertrude Bell, by Georgina Howell, offers quite a bit of insight into the current state of affairs in the Middle East.  Bell was an early travel in the Middle East (as the region is now referred to) and is sometimes called the female Lawrence of Arabia.  Her knowledge and connections in the area were a great asset to the British Empire during, and following, World War I.

What I found most interesting, and unexpected, were the many similarities between the British experiences in Iraq circa 1918 and the current United States effort in Iraq.

Conditions left by the occupying Turks and their subsequent removal by the Allied Powers created physical conditions very similar to the conditions left by the reign of Hussein and his regime’s removal by the United States.  Howell relates,

There was vital reconstruction to do.  In many towns, public buildings and markets had to be rebuilt.  Irrigation systems, roads, bridges, … Education and justice needed to be made available to all.  Police had to be recruited and trained, crime discouraged, and the law defined and applied with due consideration for local religion. (p 287)

Similarly, in the execution of strategy, it was soon found that the tribal level politics were the ones that mattered.  As the Americans found, before many of the tribal groups that eventually sided with the Americans would do so, they had to assured of their future in doing so. Howell writes,

It was hard for the tribes to believe that the new occupiers of Baghdad would hold on to their conquest, or that the Turks would not return, exacting a horrible revenge of all who placed their trust in the British. (p 280)

In that last quote, change Turks to Al Queda and British to Americans.

Of course, the cost of the war in Iraq has been a major issue here in the United States.  This compares with Churchill’s position in administering what was still considered colonial control,

Churchill, however, had a more urgent administrative task: to reduce substantially the taxpayers’ L37 million bill for the military control of the Middle East, and the enormous cost of policing Iraq.
(p 365)

And possible, as a warning for the future, Hugh Bell once said of his daughter’s efforts

What I do feel pretty sure of is that if we leave this country to go to the dogs we will have to reconsider our whole position in Asia. …. And the place which we leave empty will be occupied by seven devils a good deal worse than any which existed before we came. (p 318)

Obviously, after one book, this is hardly an expert analysis, and there is much more that could be, and I am sure will be, written.


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