Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Déjà vu: Air power, self-ordained burden and Churchill

Somewhere in Cairo some days ago, what’s called the Arab Parliament was inaugurated amidst much fanfare. As luck would have it, what’s left of the BP’s brain had been obsessing at the time about this terrible oddity of the growing intensity of bombing raids conducted by US aircrafts last year in a country under occupation.

It is one heck of a strange twist when a liberated country loses its outdated winged aircrafts of the yesteryears only to have the liberated civilians find themselves getting bombed—unintentionally, lamentably, regrettably, blah blah blah, of course—by those latest state of the art models.

Anyhow, now throw in all this talk about the Americans standing down as the Iraqis begin to stand up, and those simmering tensions and the Kurdish preparations… and this Cairo event, as you might suspect, led me to thinking about the Cairo Conference of 1921.

There is an outstanding book by one Aaron S Klieman titled, Foundations of British Policy in the Arab World: The Cairo Conference of 1921.

You should read the book in full if you have not done so already. But here at the BP, we do our best to tantalize you. So Mr. Klieman in the original:

Important decisions affecting British financial and military responsibilities in Mesopotamia were taken during concurrent sessions of the combined Political and Military committee. On March 13 Churchill set the tone for these meetings when he pointed out that it was essential that the reductions of troops be accelerated by all possible means, and that very considerable economies be effected without delay….

Success depended to an even greater extent upon two rather uncertain factors: first, the development of a local Kurdish force and Arab levies of 5000 Mesopotamians, promised by Ja’far Pasha, to relieve British garrisons on the border; and second, the adaptation and development of air power.

The utility of airplanes for reducing expenditures was advocated by Air Marshal Sir H.M. Trenchard. He had submitted memoranda to the Cabinet several times during 1920 propounding greater emphasis on the air force. Finding Churchill increasingly receptive, he chose the Cairo Conference as an opportune occasion for presenting a “Scheme for the Control of Mesopotamia by the Royal Air Force.” Essentially his scheme called for the concerted use of an Arab army, the Royal Air Force, and armored cars, the latter forces operating from not more than three main basis. Auxiliary aerodromes would be maintained, guarded by detachments of the Arab army, at various points throughout the country. Wireless communication, armored cars , and efficient intelligence system, and the positioning of main bases along the railroad would all help to ensure the principal value of the air in maintaining internal order: its ability to answer requests for assistance “with an air of celerity which no other arm is capable of.”

A forth and final meeting of the Political Committee was held on 15 March to discuss the future of Kurdistan. Sir Percy Cox, reflecting the opinion of the Mesopotamians and supported by the loyal Miss Bell, maintained that those divisions in which the Kurds were predominant—kirkuk, Sulaimaniya, and districts north of Mosul—formed an integral part of Iraq.

He was immediately challenged by Major Young, who countered with a proposal to set up a Kurdish state without delay, one which would be under the direct control of the high commissioner and not a part of, or responsible to, the Iraqi government. Young was supported by Major Noel, the foremost authority on the Kurds, who thought the Kurds would prefer home rule and might be a useful buffer state against both Turkish pressure from without and Iraqi anti-British movements from within…

The committee finally adopted Major Young’s recommendation to keep Kurdistan separate from Iraq but mollified Cox by stipulating that this arrangement be maintained until such time a representative body of Kurdish opinion might opt for inclusion in Iraq….

…In summary, the policy which emerged from the Cairo Conference was insufficient for the times. It underestimated the Arabs and the extent of their political awakening. It deprecated their desire for independence and unity and their determination to achieve these even at the price of British support. At a time when Britain’s resolve in administrating her empire and in bearing the “white man’s burden” had begun to falter, the conference deliberated in an atmosphere of lingering self confidence. It was marked by expediency, for as Churchill explained: “We must have some friends; we cannot possibly carry on in these countries with a dwindling military force at an enormous expense, and no friends of any sort or kind. You must pick some out of scrimmage and have them on your side.” This imperative led to an alliance de convenance which soon proved fraught with inconvenience for both sides.

The Cairo Conference, in short, was perhaps too ambitious…Leaders, like ideas, proved vulnerable and obsolete in the transitional Middle East.

The fact that British policy was conducted along these lines and on the basis of these premises was due in no small measure to Winston Churchill’s influence upon the decision-making processes before, during, and after the Cairo Conference…. His skill as a technician, as an articulate proponent and able leader, was already apparent at this intermediate stage of his career. But three other traits cast doubt about his competence in this specific instance: his unfamiliarity with the Arabs, dedication to the empire idea, and restlessness.

Lord Milner, Churchill’s predecessor at the Colonial Office, wrote of him: “his weakness is that he is too apt to make up his mind without sufficient knowledge.” Because of insufficient knowledge of the Arab world Churchill adopted simplistic approach to the Palestine problem at the outset, transferred to the Arabs his preconceived notions about the relationship of an imperial power to its subject peoples and relied heavily upon the advice of T.E. Lawrence. [Churchill, speaking of Iraq in June, 1921,said: “there is no doubt that these turbulent people are apt to get extremely bored if they are subjected to a higher form of justice and more efficient administration than those to which they have for centuries been accustomed. At any rate we have reverted perforce, and by the teaching of experience, to more primitive methods” (speech before the Imperial Conference, Imperial Meetings, 1921, Vol.1)]

Then, after the conference, as conditions changed and the Cairo policy needed unceasing supervision, Churchill, regarding the Middle East as pacified and his major objectives as accomplished, became absorbed in other, non-Arab matters.

…the conference’s contribution, and Churchill’s, was to momentarily arrest the process of drift which had hindered Great Britain in the Fertile Crescent since World War I. It integrated the ideas brought to it in order to form a comprehensive policy and durable foundation. Yet the new policy, a combination of tradition and innovation, was in turn subjected to inertia, enduring until it was repudiated by the major shock of World War II and the dissolution of the British Empire.

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