Summary: Over 70 years ago, the United Kingdom's occupation of Iraq proved so unpopular at home that London had to declare success and head for the exit. The British pulled out early, and chaos followed in their wake. If Washington hopes for better, it should study this example to learn how -- and how not -- to end an occupation.
Joel Rayburn is a Major in the U.S. Army based at Central Command. From 2002 to 2005, he taught history at the U.S. Military Academy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of CENTCOM or the Defense Department
HOW THE BRITISH QUIT MESOPOTAMIA
The United States was not the first country in the last hundred years to occupy Iraq. That distinction belongs to the United Kingdom, which seized the provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul from the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and formally took control of the new country in 1920, under a mandate from the League of Nations
A number of pundits have recently noted the parallels between the United Kingdom's experience eight decades ago and the United States' today. The comparisons, however, have generally centered on the early and middle phases of both occupations. Too few have focused on the ignominious end of the United Kingdom's reign in Mesopotamia and the lessons those events hold for the United States today. In fact, Washington's current position bears a strong resemblance to London's in the late 1920s, when the British were responsible for the tutelage of a fledgling Iraqi state suffering from immature institutions, active insurgencies, and the interference of hostile neighbors. Eventually, this tutelage was undermined by pressure from the British Parliament and the press to withdraw -- forces quite similar to those in the United States now calling for a withdrawal from Iraq. Building a better understanding of the United Kingdom's mistakes -- and of the consequences of that country's ultimate withdrawal from Iraq -- could thus help illuminate the present occupation and provide answers to when and how to end it. If the British record teaches anything, it is this: costly and frustrating as the fostering of Iraqi democracy may be, the costs of leaving the job undone would likely be far higher, for both the occupiers and the Iraqis. This is a lesson the British learned more than seven decades ago, when their premature pullout in 1932 led to more violence in Iraq, the rise of a dictatorship, and a catastrophic unraveling of everything the British had tried to build there.