Monday, January 14, 2008

"An Ungrateful Volcano"

Below is a letter written by Winston Churchill in 1922, after the First World War when Great Britain occupied the former Ottoman Empire region of Mesopotamia {Iraq}. It was Churchill who is credited with setting the boundaries that is Iraq today. Of Course, Churchill is an absolute icon in Neo-conservative circles, so I thought it might be illuminating to get Winston's take on the Iraq he created.

Winston S. Churchill to David Lloyd George
(Churchill papers: 17/27)

1 September 1922
I am deeply concerned about Iraq. The task you have given me is becoming
really impossible. Our forces are reduced now to very slender proportions.
The Turkish menace has got worse; Feisal is playing the fool, if not the
knave; his incompetent Arab officials are disturbing some of the provinces
and failing to collect the revenue; we overpaid £200,000 on last year's account
which it is almost certain Iraq will not be able to pay this year, thus entailing
a Supplementary Estimate in regard to a matter never sanctioned by
Parliament; a further deficit, in spite of large economies, is nearly certain
this year on the civil expenses owing to the drop in the revenue. I have had to
maintain British troops at Mosul all through the year in consequence of the
Angora quarrel: this has upset the programme of reliefs and will certainly
lead to further expenditure beyond the provision I cannot at this moment
withdraw these troops without practically inviting the Turks to come in. The
small column which is operating in the Rania district inside our border
against the Turkish raiders and Kurdish sympathisers is a source of constant
anxiety to me.
I do not see what political strength there is to face a disaster of any kind, and
certainly I cannot believe that in any circumstances any large reinforcements
would be sent from here or from India. There is scarcely a single newspaper -
Tory, Liberal or Labour - which is not consistently hostile to our remaining in
this country. The enormous reductions which have been effected have
brought no goodwill, and any alternative Government that might be formed
here - Labour, Die-hard or Wee Free - would gain popularity by ordering
instant evacuation. Moreover in my own heart I do not see what we are
getting out of it. Owing to the difficulties with America, no progress has been
made in developing the oil. Altogether I am getting to the end of my
I think we should now put definitely, not only to Feisal but to the Constituent
Assembly, the position that unless they beg us to stay and to stay on our own
terms in regard to efficient control, we shall actually evacuate before the
close of the financial year. I would put this issue in the most brutal way, and
if they are not prepared to urge us to stay and to co-operate in every manner
I would actually clear out. That at any rate would be a solution. Whether we
should clear out of the country altogether or hold on to a portion of the Basra
vilayet is a minor issue requiring a special study.
It is quite possible, however, that face to face with this ultimatum the King,
and still more the Constituent Assembly, will implore us to remain. If they
do, shall we not be obliged to remain? If we remain, shall we not be
answerable for defending their frontier? How are we to do this if the Turk
comes in? We have no force whatever that can resist any serious inroad. The
War Office, of course, have played for safety throughout and are ready to say
'I told you so' at the first misfortune.
Surveying all the above, I think I must ask you for definite guidance at this
stage as to what you wish and what you are prepared to do. The victories of
the Turks will increase our difficulties throughout the Mohammedan world.
At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an
ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything
worth having.

From Martin Gilbert, WINSTON S. CHURCHILL IV, Companion Volume
Part 3, London: Heinemann, 1977, pp. 1973-74. Reprinted by kind permission
of Winston S. Churchill.

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