Gjesteskribent

Gertrude Bell er en fascinerende skikkelse: overklassekvinne, språkbegavelse som lærte seg persisk, arabisk, hebraisk, og reiste til de mest ugjestmilde, fjerntliggende områder av Midtøsten, herunder Saudi-Arabia, og ble politisk sekretær i Irak under 1. verdenskrig. Hun omgikkes menn, britiske militære og arabiske sheiker, og var med å utforme den nye staten Irak.

Rory Stewart, som selv var politisk administrator i det sørlige Irak etter 2003, anmelder flere bøker om Bell, som utøver en spesiell dragning på mennesker, i siste New York Review of Books. Med sin egen erfaring kan Stewart både vurdere britenes innsats da Irak ble skapt, og amerikanernes 80 år senere.

Stewart drar to konklusjoner: Britenes ledere var langt mer kvalifisert enn amerikanerne. Mange av dem hadde alene utforsket Midtøsten, de snakket språket – og likevel mislyktes de. Hvorfor? Fordi irakerne ikke lot seg å oppdra, for å si det enkelt. De har andre modeller, andre metoder og innfallsvinkler enn den vestlige. Stewart mener dette gjelder både Irak, det sørlige Afghanistan og Iran.

Derfor mener han at amerikanernes innsats er spilt møye. Han mener feks. at ytterligere innsats ikke kommer til å forandre noe som helst. Resultatet vil være det samme om to år som idag. De som ofrer livet vil ha dødd forgjeves.

Det er interessante tanker som fortjener å tas alvorlig. Stewart mener ikke at det betyr at irakere og afghanere får seile sin egen sjø. Men han mener at man må vise større åpenhet for forskjeller. Det er en av grunnene til at han tiltrekkes av Gertrude Bell: hun var en skarp kritiker av britenes innsats. Irak ble til under deres kommando. Den som vil studere dagens Irak, må derfor begynne med begynnelsen:

This country, created in 1920 from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which were conquered and occupied by the British during World War I, was given the status of a British mandate and called Iraq.
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The British Mandate of Iraq had problems from its beginnings. A revolt in 1920 cost the British several hundred lives and an estimated £40 million and convinced them of the impossibility of direct colonial control. The monarchy, which they established under the Hashemite King Faisal—a foreigner and a Sunni with close links to the British—was unpopular with many Kurds, Shia, and nationalists. And even after Iraq joined the League of Nations in 1932, having developed some of the institutions of a modern state, it continued to be threatened by ethnic and sectarian divisions and religious and nationalist opposition. In 1958 the monarchy was brutally overthrown, in favor of military rule and then Baathist dictatorship.

Mange ting er forbausende like i Irak av 1920 og 2003: plyndringen av offentlige bygninger og ødeleggelsen av arkiver.

In her «Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia» in 1920, she notes that

if it took rather longer to open some of the Baghdad schools than expected, the delay may be attributed to the people themselves, who looted all the furniture and equipment of the schools and carried off the doors, windows and other portable fittings.

Eighty-five years later, when I was working in Amara, a city on the Tigris north of Basra, we had to replace the doors, windows, and furniture in 240 of the four hundred schools that had been looted in the province. Bell complains of the former Ottoman rulers as we did of the former Baathist leaders: the senior officials had all left, taking or destroying the most important administrative data. But she recognizes that much of this complexity and uncertainty is an inevitable element in any occupation.

Gertrude Bell beskriver det samme dilemmaet som karakteriserer dagens situasjon: damn if you do, damn if you dont. Irakerne vil at amerikanerne skal bli, og faller dem samtidig i ryggen.

Britene bombet med fly i 1920, og den gang var det ikke presisjonsbombing. Soldatene kunne ha nedlatende eller rasistiske holdninger. Men den gang var det ingen medier som skapte en opinion.

Norske medier kunne ha mye å lære av Bell: Vi er prisgitt omstendigheter vi ikke har kontroll over, skriver hun. «Fiaskoen» er komplisert. Det er mye skyld å fordele. Likevel kan ikke hverken briter eller amerikanere trekke seg ut. Selv ikke eks-øverstkommanderende Ricardo Sanchez anbefalte det: han sa tvert imot at det kunne få katastrofale følger.

…There’s no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don’t know.

No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.

[The politician] Saiyid Talib…is the ablest man in the country. He is also, it must be remembered, entirely unscrupulous, but his interests and ours are the same….

…We are largely suffering from circumstances over which we couldn’t have had any control. The wild drive of discontented nationalism…and of discontented Islam…might have proved too much for us however far-seeing we had been; but that doesn’t excuse us for having been blind.

[In talking to an Arab nationalist leader] I said complete independence was what we ultimately wished to give. «My lady» he answered—we were speaking Arabic —»complete independence is never given; it is always taken.»

Det var en helt annen politisk kultur rundt 1. verdenskrig. Bell korresponderte direkte med statsråder og ledende politikere.

Bell, who ranked as a major, corresponded regularly and directly with Winston Churchill in the cabinet; Arthur Hirschel, the senior official at the India Office; Victor Chairol, the foreign editor of the Times; and Aurel Stein at the British Museum; and she had known all of them for twenty years. Many of her colleagues, including T.E. Lawrence, who came from a much more modest background than Bell, had similar access. And because of paralyzing bureaucratic rivalry in London and the distraction of the First World War (compared to the western front, the Middle East was called «a side-show of a side-show»), she and her immediate colleagues were able to champion policies in Iraq with very little interference from their theoretical superiors in the Foreign Office, the India Office, the War Office, or the Colonial Office.

Det britiske koloniprosjektet avfødte mennesketyper som det ikke er rom for idag.

Bell’s boss A.T. Wilson, who was civil commissioner in Baghdad from 1918 to 1920, may have been an impressive figure; he saved money on home leave by doing a double shift as a stoker, shoveling coal sixteen hours a day from Bombay to Marseilles and cycling the last nine hundred miles home. But he was also a sun-baked imperialist who lacked sympathy for Iraqis and the imagination to encompass their aspirations. The writings of Bell’s second boss, Percy Cox, who replaced Wilson in 1920 as first high commissioner of the newly created mandate, could be unpleasantly racist.
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The political officers in Iraq in 1916 are best perceived not as romantic originals but as conscious servants of an imperial tradition. If Bell turned naturally to archaeology in Baghdad, it was because for a century the scholar-soldier British residents in Baghdad had been pioneers in major fields of archaeology. J.E. Taylor uncovered Sumerian civilization, Henry Rawlinson was the first to decipher cuneiform, and A.H. Layard surveyed Nineveh. If she and her colleagues undertook long hazardous journeys of exploration, wrote books, and expected to be rewarded with fame, promotion, and medals from the Royal Geographical Society or from the king, that was how Alexander Burnes, the British political officer in Afghanistan, had been rewarded on his return from Bokhara in 1832.

Det går en direkte linje fra britenes nasjonsbyggende innsats til dagens problemer, Intet sted er det tydeligere enn hva gjelder kurderne. Det var britene som inkluderte provinsen Mosul i Irak, til tross for at 90 prosent av kurderne var imot. De ville ha en egen stat. Historien kunne blitt en helt annen hvis det hadde skjedd.

Stewart frikjenner på mange måter amerikanerne, eller rettere: han relativiserer deres skyld. Det er vanlig å skylde på oppløsning av hæren, avsettelse av Baath-funksjonærer, og plyndringen som årsaker amerikanerne kunne gjort noe med. Men Stewart sier årsakene stikker mye dypere. Britene hadde høyt kvalifiserte ledere, likevel ble de skutt i ryggen, bokstavelig talt:

Some suggest today that the US failure in Iraq is due simply to lack of planning; to specific policy errors— debaathification, looting, the abolition of the army, and lack of troops; and to the absence of a trained cadre of Arabists and professional nation-builders. They should consider Bell and her colleagues, such as Colonel Leachman or Bertram Thomas, a political officer on the Euphrates. All three were fluent and highly experienced Arabists, won medals from the Royal Geographical Society for their Arabian journeys, and were greatly admired for their political work. Thomas was driven from his office in Shatra by a tribal mob. Colonel Leachman, who was famed for being able to kill a tribesman dead in his own tent without a hand lifted against him, was shot in the back in Fallujah. Bell’s defeat was slower but more comprehensive. Of the kingdom she created, with its Sunni monarch and Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish subjects, there is today no king, no Sunni government, and something close to civil war. Perhaps soon there will be no country.

The Queen of the Quagmire
By Rory Stewart