Inventing Iraq – Yet Again?


Toby Dodge’s Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied 1 (03) constitutes a very interesting guide to the British period in Iraq – or Mesopotamia, as it was then called. The period began, naturally enough, in World War I. Like their counterparts in the Central Powers, British policymakers were determined to maximize the gains that would flow from victory. Why such ambitious planning is taken as decisive proof of gross immorality when done by the Germans, but as common sense when done by the Brits, is anyone’s guess.

In any case, anticipating big changes once Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their ally the tottering Ottoman Empire were sufficiently softened up, British planners devised a whole post-war New World Order,2 so to speak.

Central to British planning was oil. Wartime experience had raised fears of imperial dependency on foreign-controlled oil supplies and, indeed, during the war Britain had mainly gotten its oil from a single source – the United States.3 Now in position to liquidate the Ottomans’ former assets, the British stood to secure vast oil reserves they could control. Perhaps as compensation for lost sales, they tried to con the Americans into taking Syria as a League of Nations Mandate.

In the end, the US Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, leaving the US out of Wilson’s League of Nations, and the British could not foist Syria off on America. Instead, they grudgingly let France have the mandate over Syria.

In the old days, of course, British administrators would have simply organized a likely set of former Ottoman territories into a colony with proper frontiers and enough built-in ethnic rivalries to keep the “natives” from unifying and throwing the foreign intruders out. Unfortunately, having helped bring the US into the war for the Americans’ bags of money, industrial might, and (secondarily) manpower, they found themselves rhetorically trapped by Woodrow Wilson’s universalist ideas about collective security and other high-minded claptrap. Of course this US “anti-imperialism” was the presentable face of the Open Door policy of state-assisted American commercial expansion.

Under the new Wilsonian rules, which involved open markets, self-determination, and sovereignty for everyone (after a bit of training), the British had to invent a sovereign “nation” of Iraq, but one whose rulers would follow British orders, once the latter officially withdrew at the end of their League mandate. In the all-important matter of oil, the British got the US government and American oil interests to settle for a 25% share of the Iraqi oil business.

British goals required a unified Iraq, consisting of Mosul (mostly Kurdish), the Sunni center, and the Shiite south, all under a cooperative and pliable regime. British policymakers in London, Cairo, and Delhi put forth competing plans and theories of how best to bring such an Iraq about. They began studying Iraqi society in the spirit of applied sociology to learn how best to achieve this (Dodge, p. 13). Meanwhile, they managed to thwart attempts by the new secular Turkish state to claim oil-rich Mosul.4

The first serious snag the British faced in Iraq was the massive tax revolt of 1920-1921.5 In the interests of installing a “legitimate” regime, they brought in from Syria the Hashemite sheik Faisal as king, along with his council. In the end, what they managed to impose before they “left” in 1932 was a weak monarchy resting on a Sunni élite, whose tax collections were enforced, up to that point, by British military power (Dodge, p. 31).

British withdrawal as an occupying power coincided with admission of the Iraqi state to League membership, a badge of its alleged equal, international sovereignty (p. 37).

In contrast with the current US adventure – so far anyway – the British had been under constant financial pressure to withdraw as quickly as possible. Neither Parliament nor the British taxpayer had much stomach for continued presence in Mesopotamia (pp. 38 ff). The British state builders had to work quickly and on a budget.


So how did British administrators undertake to make a cooperative “modern” Iraqi nation-state? Here any number of inherited British prejudices and ideological axes-for-grinding came into play. Thus, the British assumed that Ottoman rule had involved the vilest Oriental Despotism, in which corrupt effendis (landlords) and Ottoman-trained bureaucrats based in the cities had oppressed the noble savages of the countryside (pp. 43-44). That the Arab Nationalist masses were found in cities was another mark against the cities.

This meant that the sheiks were the key to a stable Iraq (p. 45). The task, therefore, was to inspect Iraq sociologically, find out who the “natural leaders” were, and delegate even more power to them as conduits of Iraqi state (and therefore British) power. This was easier said than done, and was complicated by differing social theories held by the British interveners.

The India Office types naturally thought that all truths about society and state had already been revealed in Inja and that, therefore, one simply applied those lessons and methods in the new place. Carry on – and wipe that grin off your face! Other administrators, whose experience was in London or Cairo, pursued different notions.


Dodge marks out two main schools of thought among the British officials in Iraq. The “individualist school,” which had been around for nearly a century, was utilitarian, Benthamite, and in some way the product of serial incest between the India Office and the sell-out wing of English classical liberalism. Their “individualism,” if it must be called that, centered on rational individual actors looking to maximize their economic good, very narrowly conceived.

Without bogging down in the matter, this outlook involved a subaltern clerk’s notion of rationality in a mechanistic universe subject to statistical-mathematical analysis and manipulation. I shall merely note the resemblance between this ideology and some contemporary American variants associated with the Chicago School, which long served as the right wing of Cold War liberalism. In opposing this scientistic, “empiricist” outlook, the Left believes it has refuted the only possible defense of freedom and free markets; and precisely because this outlook does not require much actual “freedom” for real actors in real places, US officialdom increasingly embraces it.

Allied to this was the claim that under Oriental Despotism, no real property existed (p. 51). It was thus up to the imperial power to specify “real” property rights and impose them systematically, and if this happened to help some, including fellow nationals of the imperial power, and depress others, that was entirely accidental. The Ottoman state or the local tribe had held all property titles, and it was for the Brits to impose a modernized system fit for a market economy.

It is worth remarking in passing that it took some nerve for the Brits to do this, given their inability fully to extract their own basic legal notions and practices from the framework of Anglo-Norman feudalism.


The second school of administrative thought was “collectivist.” This was an ideology tailor-made for English gentlemen who enjoyed power, wealth, and even commerce, but looked down from Olympian heights on mere “trade.” They were anti-urban, anti-bourgeois, prone to finding noble savages to lionize and recruit overseas, and inclined to contrast the green and pleasant south of England with the industrialized north.6

This was nothing new. Holders of this view had long since conquered, pillaged, and organized Scotland and Ireland, enrolled the noble savages of those places in the imperial armed forces, and kept those landscapes so green and pleasant that the people had no livelihood and had to leave for North America and other parts of the Great Frontier.

Why should what had worked so well in Scotland, Ireland, and India, not work in Mesopotamia?


The British official mind, sometimes Benthamite and sometimes agrarian, went along by fits and starts, and was rather torn while inventing Iraq. The British had enough accumulated experience administering overseas “natives” to grasp the need for bureaucracy that could effectively penetrate into the daily lives of the people so badly needing surveying and punishing. It was one of their complaints that the corrupt Ottoman bureaucrats had remained detached from Iraqi society (Dodge, p. 48). Ideally, the new state would bring society fully into its care.

British practice, whatever the relative “individualism” or “collectivism” of the particular policymakers, did involve the “high modernist” project of making things bureaucratically intelligible, orderly, and manageable. Thus, the “model of state-driven modernization that would transform property rights was exported along with everything else that colonial modernization entailed” (p. 105). Officials on the ground would rather perversely allocate, transfer, and award property rights on the basis of any number of ad hoc notions and for sundry instrumental purposes.

It took a good measure of state-imposed social engineering to create “natural order” in Iraq.


But the Brits were short on time and money and had to scale down the creation in Iraq of an ideal modern, abstract, bureaucratic state. Less would have to do, and the key – aside from keeping the king, his councilors, and bureaucrats happy and in line – was to give the puppet state sufficient force to compel obedience from the refractory urban masses and the wild-eyed farmers and nomads out in the sticks. This proved difficult because the noble savages, “the true Iraqis” according to one school of British thought, were not too keen on being governed at all (pp. 48-49).

The Brits wanted and needed the oil. Iraq had to seem independent. State building demanded enough centralized force to collect taxes so as to impose order, so that more taxes could be collected, to impose order, and so on ad infinitum. This is the essence of being modern, according to most schools of thought.

The British now confronted the dilemma of how to build an army loyal to king Faisal and his state, while keeping both subservient to Britain. Here was a real dilemma. British forces could not remain indefinitely. Conscription was needed, but the British administrators distrusted the urban masses – seen as malformed by Ottoman corruption, unreliable owing to Arab nationalism, and physically poor specimens owing to effete urban living (and here again is the agrarian prejudice).

That left the tribal country folk. Unfortunately, these noble savages were disinclined to be conscripted and were heavily armed.

The British undertook to find the proper sheiks – the natural leaders. Having done that, they required them to remit current and overdue taxes as well as their clansmen’s rifles. They got some response on the first demand and next to none on the second one.

At this point, technology was adduced to save the day: air power! The Royal Air Force needed to justify its existence and quickly asserted that bombing was a great way to achieve compliance on the cheap. Thus came into being taxation by bombing – an intellectual breakthrough worthy of the civilization that produced it. Winston Churchill, Colonial Secretary, was a great promoter of this policy and, indeed, never saw a bombing campaign he didn’t like (although even he later found US aerial conduct in Korea a bit excessive).

So the territories, property, and people under non-complying sheiks were bombed and bombed, until the sheiks came in to negotiate. Typically, they produced the money – and no rifles worth mentioning. Even sheiks acting as conduits of British-Hashemite state power, found their limits (pp. 136, 144-156).

The policymakers sold this to the English public as a much more humane way of doing things than sending in an army that the administrators didn’t have.

Meanwhile, a rather small Iraqi army was cobbled together, but with air power kept in reserve as the last, next to last, and very nearly next-to-last resort. Things rocked along, and the British withdrew. Then World War II came, the Americans eased the British out of their ill-gotten oil fields, bit by bit, and thence by sundry twists and turns we arrive at the here and now.


Professor Dodge has been a very good guide so far, and I suppose I could leave it at that. When someone has written an excellent book, it may be rude to begrudge him his political views. But, alas, there hovers over the book a notion that there exists, somewhere, some sort of ideal state for Iraq, and that the Americans – if they are more patient than the British were in the 1920s and ’30s – can somehow bring that ideal state about. This notion, which seems hopelessly muddled to me at least, becomes explicit in the later chapters.

Dodge describes how the Ba’athist “shadow state” – which presumably was not the proper, idealized state – exercised power and leverage against its citizens. After the first US-Iraq War, “the civilian arm of the state employed 21 percent of the working population, with 40 percent of Iraqi households directly depending on government payments.” Again: “Applications to receive a ration card gave the government crucial information about every household under its control” (p. 160). Persons from Saddam Hussein’s “extended clan group” staffed the state and their networks “protected Saddam by penetrating all corners of society.” This was not a proper state because “these informal and highly personalized networks undermine the creation of a legal-rational bureaucracy and have a flexibility and tenacity that make them very difficult to root out. Coalition forces run the danger of unconsciously bolstering the networks of the shadow state created by the regime they ousted” (p. 161).

But many of the same things could be said about any developed “western” welfare-warfare state. And consider Dodge’s characterization of how the regime of Saddam Hussein acquired and kept power:

“[F]irst, the deployment of extreme levels organized violence by the state to dominate and shape society; second, the use of state resources – jobs, development aid, and patronage – to buy the loyalty of sections of society; third, the use of oil revenue by the state to increase its autonomy from society; and, finally, the exacerbation and re-creation by the state of communal and ethnic divisions as a strategy of rule. These interlinked problems have fuelled the state’s domestic illegitimacy; its tendency to embark on military adventurism beyond its own borders, and even the Baathist regime’s drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Seen this perspective, Saddam Hussein must be understood less as the cause of Iraq’s violent political culture – or even of Iraq’s role as a source of regional instability – and more as the symptom, albeit an extremely consequential one, of deeper, long-term dynamics within Iraq’s political sociology” (pp.169-170).

But let us rewrite the passage a bit to fit another state. Now we have:

“… deployment of extreme levels organized violence by the state to dominate and shape society (especially in 1861-1865 and 1917-1919); second, the use of state resources – jobs, development aid, and patronage – to buy the loyalty of sections of society; third, the use of monetary levers (and other tools) by the state to increase its autonomy from society; and, finally, the exacerbation and re-creation by the state of communal and ethnic divisions as a strategy of rule (even if these are undertaken in the name of egalitarianism). These interlinked problems have fuelled the state’s domestic illegitimacy; its tendency to embark on military adventurism beyond its own borders, and even the regime’s highly successful drive to acquire (and use) weapons of mass destruction. Seen this perspective, G—– B— must be understood less as the cause of X’s violent political culture – or even of X’s role as a source of worldwide instability – and more as the symptom, albeit an extremely consequential one, of deeper, long-term dynamics within X’s political sociology.”

The point is simply that there may be no ideal good state that differs, fundamentally, from a bad state. The things that make either one a state appear to be the same. It is simply not obvious that giving the Iraqi people a modern state would be such a big favor. Nor is it obvious that it can be done at all, especially if one has to rely on the Americans’ being more patient than the British were.

Americans are not known for patience.

In any case, it is hard to see how successfully imposing a modern state, anywhere, could be done without resort to essentially criminal means. Established states resort to fairly small amounts of internal violence precisely because they already killed, burned, and pillaged enough to make their point one or two centuries ago. This is what is called “legitimacy.”

To take this any further would require a long excursion into history, political theory, and ethics.

Meanwhile, the current US project in Iraq seems to be running up against the same self-inflicted imperial paradox noted by Gertrude Bell in 1921:

“We are hampered by the tribal uprising which has delayed the work of handing over to the Arab Govt. Sir Percy, I think rightly, decided that the tribes must be made to submit to force. In no other way was it possible to make them surrender their arms, or teach them that you mustn’t engage lightly in revolution, even when your holy men tell you to do so… without the lesson and without drawing their teeth by fines of arms (impossible to obtain except by force) we should have left an impossible task to the Arab Govt. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to be burning villages at one end of the country by means of a British Army, and assuring people at the other end that we really have handed over responsibility to native ministers….”7

Legitimacy is a tough one, innit?


  1. Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.) Dodge is a research fellow at the University of Warwick (England).
  2. For the larger picture, see David Fromkin, A Peace To End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1989).
  3. John A. DeNovo, “The Movement for an Aggressive American Oil Policy Abroad, 1918-1920,” American Historical Review, 61, 4 (July 1956), pp. 854-876.
  4. Habibollah Atarodi, Great powers, Oil and the Kurds in Mosul, 1910-1925 (New York: University Press of America, 2003).
  5. See Amal Vinogradov, “The 1920 Revolt in Iraq Reconsidered: The Role of Tribes in National Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 3, 2 (April 1972), pp. 123-139.
  6. See Martin J. Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 (Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Penguin, 1992).
  7. Quoted in Vinogradov, pp. 138-139 (italics supplied).