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Churchill on Iraq: “Living on an Ungrateful Volcano”

by Shannon Monaghan on Oct 1, 2007

On Sept. 1, 1922, Great Britain’s colonial secretary, the man responsible for the administration of the British presence in Iraq, wrote a scathing letter to his Prime Minister on the miserable state of that country and Britain’s interests there. He closed his letter with these crushing lines:

“At present we are paying eight millions [in] pounds Sterling a year [the equivalent of half a billion dollars today] for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.”On Sept. 1, 1922, Great Britain’s colonial secretary, the man responsible for the administration of the British presence in Iraq, wrote a scathing letter to his Prime Minister on the miserable state of that country and Britain’s interests there. He closed his letter with these crushing lines:

The name of that colonial secretary? Winston Churchill.

The phrase “history repeats itself” is overused; the greater tragedy is that in this instance the cliche is entirely appropriate. President Bush appears to think that he can somehow escape the lessons that the past can teach us and that history will treat his misadventure in Iraq well. Experience does not bode well for his hopes.

By 1922, Churchill had no such illusory hopes about Iraq. In fact, he declared the task of managing the country “impossible.”

Little has changed since Churchill came to that sobering conclusion. Like those who would today challenge the American president on Iraq, Churchill paid a price for his view. His prime minister severely rebuked him, and refused to allow even the notion of withdrawal to be brought before his cabinet. It took Great Britain ten years more of harsh lessons on the groups in Iraq before it finally granted that nation its independence.

In making his case to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Churchill argued that Britain’s course of action in Iraq was a waste – a waste of money, effort, time and political capital. The difficulties with Britain’s stance that Churchill emphasized are those that the American public faces day after day, month after month, year after year.

Churchill declared the Arab officials of Iraq’s British-backed King Feisal “incompetent.” He noted the gross over-expenditure of monies in the region by the British government, which “it is almost certain Iraq will not be able to pay.” Furthermore, he lamented that “no progress has been made in developing the oil.” He was worried about British troops and desperately concerned about increased Turkish influence in the region and a potential Turkish invasion. He insisted that “there is scarcely a single newspaper . . . which is not consistently hostile to our remaining in this country.”

In fact, Churchill strongly advocated immediately removing the British presence Iraq if the provisional Iraqi government did not co-operate. Furthermore, he pointed out that in Britain the party had “no political strength to face disaster of any kind,” and that the British public’s opinion of the situation was so poor that a newly formed government at home would have to order “instant evacuation” to gain immediate support. After reciting at length this litany of failures, Churchill crisply stated, “Altogether, I am getting to the end of my resources.”

One only needs to turn on the news to realize that the United States is futilely struggling with the very same problems that Churchill struggled with – and more. The U.S. government and its military leaders cannot find a solution to the problems besetting the Iraqi government, the development and allocation of the country’s oil, the influence of Iran and other countries in the region and sectarian violence. U.S. military forces face unrelieved dangers. Public opinion at home has soured on the war. Americans, like Britons in Churchill’s day, have reached the end of their resources.

Ironically, Bush declared in 2004 that “I’ve always been a great admirer of Sir Winston Churchill, admirer of his career, admirer of his strength, admirer of his character — so much so that I keep a stern-looking bust of Sir Winston in the Oval Office.” If the President so admires Churchill, he should heed that great man’s warnings about involvement in Iraq and remove American troops from that nation now.


Shannon Monaghan studies history at Yale University and writes for the History News Service.