Only seventy years ago, Great Britain ruled over more than one quarter of the land surface of the planet. It policed, as far as anyone did, the oceans and seas, and it was the most important force in world finance, trade, and economy. All this was a source of national pride and a sense of mission that, for most people, conveniently evaded moral questions about the right of one race or nation to dominate another. Lord Curzon, the ultimate British proconsul, wrote that the British Empire was the greatest instrument for good that the world had ever seen.

Britain is no longer a world power. The colonies, dominions, and protectorates that made up the empire upon which the sun never set, with a few small exceptions, have gone their own way. The Commonwealth still reflects the positive side of imperial relationships, but it is a pale reminder of that legendary world of exploration and trade, of bugles and cavalry charges, of dedicated servants of the empire living out their lives far from home.

Britain is still one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, where the empire’s most conspicuous legacy is a series of apparently unresolvable problems. Palestine, Kashmir, and Cyprus are in a class by themselves for their insolubility. The first UN military observer operations were a response to the violence in Palestine and Kashmir; the first UN peacekeeping force was set up to end the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956. The empire also left behind several states or federations made up of incompatible ethnic or religious groups whose mutual hostility created instability and even, occasionally, civil war. Of these, Iraq is currently the most prominent, and the thorniest.

In Ends of British Imperialism, Wm. Roger Louis, the historian of the British Empire and Commonwealth at the University of Texas in Austin, explains in exhilarating detail the complex process of imperial growth and dissolution. In The International Struggle over Iraq, David Malone, currently the Canadian high commissioner in India and formerly president of the International Peace Academy, analyzes the international setting, particularly in the UN Security Council, of the involvement of the United States in Iraq. These two books raise many important issues, among them the question of how far history must dictate the future and how far the United Nations system and the Pax Americana can take over the law-and-order functions of the old imperialism.

1.

In the late-nineteenth-century European scramble for colonies, Africa was colonized almost exclusively for financial gain and prestige, with, as Louis shows, very little serious concern for, or knowledge of, the indigenous African population.1 Although some of the lots drawn in the European scramble, such as the Congo and Ghana, were economically and financially rewarding to the imperialists, most of the new colonial possessions were not. Nor was the desire for colonies only a European fashion. In the Pacific, Japan annexed Korea in 1910, acquired the former German islands in the Pacific north of the equator in the Treaty of Versailles, invaded Manchukuo and China in the 1930s, and entered World War II as an imperial power in 1941.

During the twenty years between the two world wars the entire British imperial system functioned—for the first and last time—as a worldwide political and economic institution. Long before World War II the movement for independence was fermenting, especially in India. That war’s vast demands on British manpower and financial and economic resources made the expense of empire impossible to sustain.

The United States was strongly opposed to colonialism both in principle and in practice, as Franklin Roosevelt made clear to Winston Churchill in 1941 during the drafting of the Atlantic Charter. FDR insisted that respect for “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” applied to all members of the human family and not just to those whose lands were currently occupied by the Axis. The 1956 Suez Crisis, which Louis regards as the end of British and French imperialism, dramatically exposed Britain’s financial and military weakness and its dependence on the United States.

Harold Macmillan, who succeeded Anthony Eden as prime minister after the Suez debacle, recognized the “winds of change” in Africa and elsewhere and accelerated the pace of British decolonization. Louis describes the rush to give independence to colonial holdings in the 1960s as the “mirror image” of the European scramble for colonies seventy-five years earlier. However much Africans wanted independence, both colonization and rapid decolonization were appallingly disruptive. Colonial boundaries ignored both tribal and economic realities and ran through unexplored country, often along lines of longitude and latitude. The main result was to undermine the institutions and traditions by which tribal Africa had lived for so long. The supposedly superior systems of government, justice, and administration introduced by the European powers did not have sufficient time to take firm root before the colonists departed; and some European rulers did very little to prepare their subjects for self-rule. Much of Africa’s present suffering and confusion derives from these failures.

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The Suez Crisis, exactly fifty years ago, which Louis calls “a deadly set of interlocking miscalculations,” dealt a mortal blow to British and French claims to be great powers. Coinciding with the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolt, Suez split the Western alliance at the worst possible time. The ludicrous pretense that an Anglo-French invading force was being sent to protect the canal from a confrontation between Israelis and Egyptians failed completely to disguise what was in fact a blatant attempt at regime change—toppling Nasser—and made Britain and France appear ridiculous as well as mendacious. The Suez fiasco destroyed the influence of Britain and France in the Middle East, where they were soon replaced by the United States.

The performance of some Western leaders over Suez was so strikingly weird that the actions of Nasser, who had ostensibly set off the crisis by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, have scarcely drawn scrutiny. John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, had declared that the US would not resort to force over the canal. Eden therefore believed that Dulles and President Eisenhower would prefer not to be informed of the British, French, and Israeli plan to invade Egypt, but would eventually support it anyway. Eden and the French leader Guy Mollet insisted on going ahead with the invasion in spite of the fact that Egypt, Britain, France, and the United States had reached agreement, under Dag Hammarskjöld’s auspices at the UN in New York, on six principles governing the future management of the canal, causing Eisenhower to comment “It looks as though a very great crisis is behind us.”

Eisenhower’s telephone call to Eden after the British started bombing targets in and around Cairo dispelled Eden’s fantasies of US support: “Anthony, have you gone out of your mind? You’ve deceived me.” Eisenhower denounced the invasion, and, by refusing to stop a potentially catastrophic run on the pound with $1 billion from the International Monetary Fund and the Export-Import Bank until Eden undertook to leave Egypt unconditionally, forced the British to abandon the Anglo-French-Israeli plan. Early in November Eisenhower was reelected in a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson. One positive element of the Suez Crisis was the creation of the first UN peacekeeping force, a deployment of six thousand soldiers from ten countries that initiated an important new form of conflict control.

A brief passage in Louis’s Suez chapters made me wonder how far the use, fifty years later, of hitherto classified sources may sometimes give undue substance to highly subjective stories. Sir Pierson Dixon, the British ambassador at the United Nations, like other key British ambassadors, whether in Cairo, Paris, or Washington, had not been informed in advance of his country’s attack on Egypt. Defending an indefensible action that he did not believe in was the worst experience of his professional life. Dixon, however, was not close to Hammarskjöld and he resented Hammarskjöld’s openly critical attitude toward the Anglo-French-Israeli operation. Nonetheless, by assembling and deploying within a few days the first UN peacekeeping force, Hammarskjöld made it possible for the British and French forces to be withdrawn with reasonable dignity. Reluctantly recognizing this fact, Dixon commented, in a cable to the foreign office,

Hammarskjoeld, I think, is on the verge of collapse…. Surprisingly enough this strange intellectual whom we have elevated into a superman is made of flesh and blood…. He literally burst into tears this evening….

To one who worked with Hammarskjöld throughout his time at the UN, his “bursting into tears” in the presence of Dixon seems so out of character that I find it virtually impossible to believe. Nor was this alleged loss of control ever mentioned or recorded in their private notes by Ralph Bunche and others who regularly accompanied Hammarskjöld at all such meetings. Dixon’s story allows him to patronize the “strange” Swedish intellectual to whom the British were so deeply in debt.

In Louis’s account, the partition plans for India and Palestine and the independence of Libya and Sudan foreshadow more recent international problems that have arisen in all these countries, as does the Anglo-US cloak-and-dagger scheme for regime change that toppled the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Musaddeq in 1953—successful in the short term, but leading to rebellion and Islamic revolution later on. In Iraq the 1958 coup and revolution, led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim, in which the king and crown prince and Britain’s all-powerful ally, Nuri Pasha es Said, were assassinated, swept away British influence in Iraq forever; not many years later, the country came under the control of the Baathist dictatorship whose overthrow has brought about the current crisis.

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In 1971 the withdrawal of British power, for reasons of economy, from east of Suez, and most notably from the Persian Gulf, by Harold Wilson’s Labour government, marked the effective end of the empire. Looking today at the shining towers, ultra-modern cities, and colossal opulence of the Gulf States, it is hard to remember that Britain’s surprise decision to withdraw from the Gulf protectorates without designating a successor caused intense anxiety at the time. The transformation of the Gulf States and their oil and natural gas reserves into major centers of finance, trade, and tourism has become a stabilizing element in one of the world’s tensest and most important strategic areas. Even the system of federation—Britain’s favored, but usually abortive, constitutional concept—has flourished in the Gulf in the United Arab Emirates.

2.

Louis’s work in archives, diaries, letters, and memoirs sheds new light on people who were rearranging the geopolitical map of the world with a self-confidence and a lack of resistance that now seem inconceivable. British leaders, politicians, and civil servants saw themselves, usually without undue personal vanity, as leading the world forward to better times. A rigorous classical education provided many of them with formidable powers of analysis that were often tempered by style, elegance, and wit.

Louis introduces many striking personalities. Most are now-forgotten public servants like Sir Percy Anderson, the architect of Britain’s African empire and the star of the Berlin Congo Conference in 1884. A few are still remembered. Roger Casement, the ultimately doomed Irish patriot, was the British consul in Leopold II’s Congo. In a 1903 report he denounced the Congo Free State as “a hell on earth” characterized by “wholesale oppression and shocking mismanagement.” His report scandalized Europe and inspired E.D. Morel’s Congo Reform Association. In 1908 the Belgian government annexed Leopold’s private Congo estate.

The League of Nations mandates system—a plan drawn up in 1919 to address the administration of the colonies of the defeated German and Ottoman empires—was the brainchild of General J.C. Smuts of South Africa, one of history’s more remarkable éminences grises. To secure Woodrow Wilson’s support for British control of important Turkish and German colonies, Smuts suggested the mandates system as a means of allowing the League of Nations to supervise the administration of former enemy colonies for which the victorious Allies were contending. Among the territories put under mandate were Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Palestine, and Southwest Africa (now Namibia). Wilson referred to the mandates as a “sacred trust of civilization” under the League of Nations.

Lord Curzon represents a more worldly, pragmatic, but elegant view, as when he combined the principle of national self-determination with confident British realpolitik. “I am inclined,” he wrote,

to value the argument of self-determination because I believe that most of the people would determine in our favour…if we cannot get out of our difficulties in any other way we ought to play self-determination for all it is worth wherever we are involved in difficulties with the French, the Arabs, or anybody else, and leave the case to be settled by that final argument knowing in the bottom of our hearts that we are more likely to benefit from it than anybody else.

Winston Churchill makes forceful and sometimes comic appearances in Louis’s book. In 1921, as a colonial secretary who was committed to Zionism, he wrote to Arthur Balfour, the secretary of state:

Whereas in Mesopotamia [shortly to become Iraq] we have been able to study the wishes of the people and humour their national sentiment, we are committed in Palestine to the Zionist policy against which nine-tenths of the population and an equal proportion of the British officers are marshalled.

In seeking the mandate of Palestine, Balfour had another consideration, the prospect of “connecting Mesopotamia with the Mediterranean by rail and pipe-line through all-British protectorates.” As Louis notes, when Ernest Bevin, the post–World War II foreign secretary, announced in the House of Commons that he would stake his political future on solving the Palestine problem, Churchill commented that “no more rash a bet has ever been recorded in the annals of the British turf.”

What Louis calls “boyish boisterousness” and echoes of school run rather disarmingly through British imperial history. Leo Amery, a much-respected voice of true imperialism in the Tory Party, was based in All Souls, Oxford, and served as Churchill’s wartime secretary of state for India. They had been schoolmates at Harrow, where Churchill once pushed the fully clothed Amery into the swimming pool. This episode colored their friendship during more than half a century of public life together. “There is no doubt,” Amery wrote in his remarkable diaries, “that if one stands up to Winston and argues with him…the argument [often] sinks into the subsoil and comes out as a Winstonian flower later on.” On the future of India, Churchill told Amery in 1944,

You…have become like Wavell and Linlithgow [the two most recent viceroys of India]…more Indian than the Indians, [and yet you] are attacked in the House of Commons as being a narrow-minded old-fashioned reactionary! It serves you right!

When Churchill finally gave in to Amery’s arguments for early Indian independence he muttered, “When you lose India don’t blame me.”

Sometimes an unadopted decision that might have made a substantial difference later leaps out from the page. General Smuts suggested that the United States should be given the mandate of Palestine. Lloyd George agreed, but later changed his mind. (It is not clear whether the United States would have accepted the Palestine mandate.) George Louis Beer, the much-respected American expert on mandates at the peace conference, objected strongly to the Urundi/ Rwanda mandate being given to Belgium instead of Britain. The British traded it for assurances that Belgium would support the peace treaty. “By such things,” Beer wrote, “is the fate of three and a half million human beings determined!”

3.

On November 5, 1914, Britain recognized Kuwait as an independent state under British protection and declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Next day a combined British and Indian force landed at Foa in what is now Iraq and secured the area around Basra, ostensibly to protect an Iranian oilfield that supplied the Royal Navy.2 This was the first stage of an involvement that cost the British large losses of life and money, but for many years ensured access to Iraqi oil. With the British intervention, the inhabitants of the new state of Iraq were caught up in an increasingly violent and oppressive history, culminating with the US involvement in the current fiasco.

In combining three incompatible Mesopotamian provinces of the Ottoman Empire into a single sovereign state, the British created the basic problem that the United States is now desperately trying to resolve. In The International Struggle over Iraq, David Malone comments that “the fractious nature of the Iraqi state…to a degree invited totalitarian control.” Moreover, “keeping Iraq on a war footing greatly facilitated this approach.” As we are seeing now, it takes a very firm, if not brutally firm, hand to keep Iraq together as a nation.

Among the scores of books about the US involvement in Iraq since 2003, little has been written about the proceedings in the UN Security Council concerning Iraq from 1980, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, to 2006. As president of the International Peace Academy, David Malone had unusually free access to the Security Council and its members.3 Malone’s clear-eyed account of the UN involvement in this eventful and violent period, culminating in the Security Council’s refusal to legitimize the US invasion, sheds new light on the many actions of the UN in relation to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, actions that, if not totally ignored, are still usually assumed, at least in the United States, to be a UN failure.

In 1991 the United Nations was hailed by President George H.W. Bush as an agent of a “New World Order.” After Desert Storm, the council set extraordinarily intrusive terms for Saddam Hussein’s surrender, including the destruction of his weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and other offensive weapons, to be supervised on site by UN inspectors. It also declared Iraq’s liability for the enormous losses Kuwait had sustained during the Iraqi invasion. (This liability was partly met by about $16 billion from the Oil-for-Food budget.) Malone traces the degeneration of this unprecedented expression of international will into the bickering and recrimination that preceded George W. Bush’s decision to launch the unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Between the two Iraq wars, the United States initiated, and later turned over to the UN high commissioner for refugees, Operation Provide Comfort, which saved nearly two million Kurdish refugees from winter in the mountains after Saddam Hussein suppressed the Kurdish uprising at the end of Desert Storm. The US and Britain set up “no-fly” zones over northern (Kurdish) and southern (Shia) Iraq and assigned air patrols to enforce them. In 1998, the combined US-UK Operation Desert Fox delivered four days of intensive bombing of Iraqi military and other targets. None of these activities was specifically authorized by the Security Council. “Within this creeping unilateralism,” Malone writes, “were sheltered the seeds of the confrontations that would undermine the Council’s authority in 2003.”

Malone quotes Martti Ahtisaari, later the president of Finland, who was sent in March 1991 to assess the damage caused by Desert Storm. “The recent conflict,” Ahtisaari concluded, “has wrought near apocalyptic results on the economic infrastructure of what was until recently a highly urban and mechanized society.” The desperate conditions caused in Iraq by Desert Storm in 1991, and later by the UN sanctions, led the UN to set up its largest and ultimately most controversial humanitarian operation, the Oil-for-Food Program. It had been taken for granted that reconstruction should be paid for by Iraq’s oil, its main surviving asset, but five years elapsed before Saddam Hussein would accept even the limited degree of international control of aid to the civilian population that was required by the Security Council. Malone comments that with the commencement of the Oil-for-Food Program in 1996, “The most comprehensive sanctions in UN history were now matched by the largest humanitarian relief operation on record.” The operation was funded by $64 billion of Iraqi oil revenues.

I have already written in these pages about the so-called scandals of the UN Oil-for-Food Program, which, while it achieved its purpose, probably did more damage to the reputation of the UN and its secretary-general than anything since the withdrawal of the peacekeeping force from Sinai in 1967—another misreported and widely misunderstood episode.4 Malone comments,

A steady drumbeat of attacks on the UN—and on Kofi Annan personally—was initiated in the United States…. That the timing of these attacks appeared so blatantly aimed at inhibiting any further enhancement of the UN’s role and at assuaging disappointment that “the UN had been proven right on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction” took nothing away from their seriousness.

In fact what scandal there was, with one exception involving a payment to an official, was almost entirely a matter of bribes and kickbacks arranged by Saddam Hussein with oil companies and other firms with whom he negotiated directly without UN involvement.5 A much larger sum involved some $12 billion in profits from oil smuggling to Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, an illegal operation that was condoned by the United States and the Security Council.

No previous international inspection body had been as intrusive as the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) that searched for and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Malone’s account of this complex tragicomedy shows both its perversity and its historical bearing on the 2003 US invasion. The Iraqis were telling the truth when they said that their WMD programs were destroyed in the mid-1990s, but they provided no reliable evidence for this claim, and hardly anyone believed them. Interminable Iraqi obstructions and deceptions made no sense to the Western powers and Western observers if in fact the WMDs were already destroyed. Even the UN inspectors did not believe in their own success. That Saddam was bluffing in order to impress Iran and other nations in the region did not seem to have occurred to most of the Western officials involved.

Under its second director, Richard Butler of Australia, who succeeded Rolf Ekewes of Sweden in 1996, UNSCOM became a political football in the Security Council because of Butler’s sensational estimates of Iraqi WMDs and later because of allegations that the United States was using UNSCOM for its own intelligence purposes. The mission was withdrawn in 1998 after prolonged obstruction of its activities by the Iraqi regime. When its successor, UNMOVIC, returned to Iraq under the leadership of Hans Blix in November 2002, it found no WMDs but it had no time to make a comprehensive inspection report before the United States invaded.

Before the US attacked, however, Hans Blix made it clear to the Security Council that the UN inspectors were no longer being obstructed; that they had found nothing after investigating five hundred sites, including those identified by national intelligence agencies; that to carry out adequate inspections he needed “months, not years”; and that the Security Council resolutions authorized a subsequent monitoring unit intended to sound the alarm if the regime again started to develop WMDs. The further inspections that Blix asked for, and which the US invasion precluded, would almost certainly have removed the main reason given for the US attack. Perhaps that is why they are so little mentioned. Both UNSCOM and UNMOVIC demonstrated the value of determined inspections, especially in the context of sanctions and a credible threat of force.

Malone describes the battle between multilateral institutionalism and unilateral “realism” at the UN. He outlines the developing tragedy of the US occupation of Iraq and the gradual resumption of UN political assistance to the Coalition Authority in setting up the various interim Iraqi governing bodies and in organizing elections. “If the Iraq saga has taught the US and the UN anything,” he writes, “it is that each needs the other.”

Malone makes useful and realistic analyses of the challenges facing both the Security Council and the UN Secretariat, among them the problem in the Security Council of national interests taking priority over the pursuit of international peace; the need to coordinate military, security, and humanitarian considerations; the future use of inspections; the use of sanctions; and the advantages and disadvantages of diplomatic ambiguity, for example, phrases like “serious consequences” or “material breach.”

Among his conclusions Malone writes:

It would be tragic if it took a nuclear detonation or a devastating chemical attack (possibly engineered by a terrorist group) to galvanize the Council members into a greater willingness to work together. Operation Iraqi Freedom stands as a powerful testament to the risks of going it alone.

Louis’s and Malone’s books are centered respectively on the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel, and the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003.6 The first adventure, ill-advised and without legitimacy, sounded the death knell of two imperial regimes. What will the second one do? There can be no doubt that, for the time being at least, both the standing and the influence of the United States in world affairs has been seriously damaged.

Since the Second World War international organizations, which were mostly founded on the initiative of the United States, as well as a large majority of the world’s governments, have depended on the United States for international leadership and much else. In spite of aberrations like the Vietnam War, it was almost taken for granted that the US would sponsor essential new undertakings, lead and provide resources in times of crisis, continue to provide vital economic aid, and send large-scale and urgent relief in times of trouble. During the cold war it was also taken for granted that the umbrella of United States armed strength would cover other countries if they were threatened. In the United Nations it was generally accepted that strong US support was essential for any serious action. Madeleine Albright was not far off the mark in the early 1990s when she called her country the “indispensable nation.”

The policies and actions of the George W. Bush administration, and especially the disaster in Iraq, have put the future possibility of this kind of world leadership in serious question. They have accelerated a process of historical change that was already in place after the end of the cold war with the rise of other economic and political powers and with other less tangible forces, including the new accessibility of information and communication, and the spread of fundamentalist religion. The Western notion of universal progress through democratization, cooperation, and, perhaps, globalization, with Western powers in the pilot’s seat, is beginning to seem rather old-fashioned. Perhaps the conventional concept of world leadership itself is now also outmoded. One thing is sure; like the Suez adventure in 1956, the occupation of Iraq has become an unintended historical turning point, with far wider consequences than its authors ever had in mind.

February 28, 2007

This Issue

March 29, 2007

  1. 1

    At the Berlin Congo Conference (1884– 1885), over which Bismarck presided, the British ambassador, Sir Edward Malet, protested, in response to Bismarck’s opening speech, that commerce was not the exclusive subject of the conference. “While it is desirable to secure a market in the Congo country, the welfare of the natives is not to be neglected.” 

  2. 2

    For a highly readable account of this and subsequent British actions, see William R. Polk’s excellent Understanding Iraq (HarperCollins, 2005), Chapter 3, “British Iraq.” 

  3. 3

    While at the IPA, Malone also edited an invaluable reference work, The UN Security Council: From the Cold War to the Twenty-first Century (Lynne Rienner, 2004). 

  4. 4

    The UN Oil-for-Food Program: Who Is Guilty?The New York Review, February 9, 2006. 

  5. 5

    The Australian government recently revealed that an Australian company, AWB Ltd., had paid more than $224 million to Saddam Hussein’s government in kickbacks and bribes and devised a system of payment to deceive the UN. See Raymond Bonner, “Panel Says Australian Company Paid Bribes,” The New York Times, November 28, 2006. 

  6. 6

    In a new and convincingly argued book, After Suez: Adrift in the American Century (I.B. Tauris, 2006), Martin Woollacott traces a direct line from the Suez disaster to the United States’ 2003 intervention in Iraq and the related effects on US and British foreign policy and on the situation in the Middle East.