Past Mideast Invasions Faced Unexpected Perils
March 19, 2003
Wall Street Journal
March 20, 2002
DRUMBEAT OF WAR
Past Mideast Invasions Faced Unexpected Perils
Invaders Have Been Repelled While Arab Casualties Mount
By HUGH POPE and PETER WALDMAN
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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
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
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
See a chart of Western invasions0 in the Middle East,
their outcomes and the lessons learned.
"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
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-
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
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
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
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
"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."
Write to Hugh Pope at hugh.popewsj.com and Peter Waldman at