The Queen of the Quagmire - Gertrude Bell

Desert Queen, The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

When the British needed a senior political officer in Basra during World War I, they appointed a forty-six-year-old woman who, apart from a few months as a Red Cross volunteer in France, had never been employed. She was a wealthy Oxford-educated amateur with no academic training in international affairs and no experience of government, policy, or management. Yet from 1916 to 1926, Gertrude Bell won the affection of Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, developed a deep knowledge of personalities and politics in the Middle East, and helped to design the constitution, select the leadership, and draw the borders of a new state. 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.
When I served as a British official in southern Iraq in 2003, I often heard Iraqis compare my female colleagues to “Gertrude Bell.” It was generally casual flattery and yet the example of Bell and her colleagues was unsettling. More than ten biographies have portrayed her as the ideal Arabist, political analyst, and administrator. Does she deserve this attention? Was she typical of her colleagues? What are the terms by which we can assess a policymaker eighty years after her death?
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.
ll’s letters, now all available on-line in an archive prepared by the Newcastle University library, suggest that Bell’s strength lay not in her political success—she did not succeed in forming a sustainable, stable, unified Iraqi state—but in the clarity and imagination with which she explored failure. She wrote almost as soon as she arrived in Basra in 1916:
…We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. We treated Mesop[otamia] as if it were an isolated unit, instead of which it is part of Arabia…. When people talk of our muddling through it throws me into a passion. Muddle through! why yes, so we do—wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.
She places some blame on the pre-existing chaos, as did the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. 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.
By 1920, Bell had added to fluent Arabic and a decade of travels in the Middle East four uninterrupted years of experience in the British administration in Iraq. Yet she never pretends in her letters in that year to be able to predict, explain, or control events. She emphasizes the weaknesses of the previous Ottoman administration; the persistence of the tribal system; the divisions between urban and rural areas. She writes about the new state’s vulnerability to troublemakers from Syria and to new forms of nationalism and radical Islam such as the vision of a Sharia religious government, promoted by Shia clerics in their 1920 revolt.
Bell shows how RAF aerial bombardments and the cultural insensitivity of British soldiers exacerbated hatred. She portrays Iraqis who loathe foreign occupation yet worry about the alternative. She knows that the occupation is unsustainable and ineffective but she cannot contemplate total withdrawal. She recognizes that British colonial control is unworkable and that there must be an Arab government, but she finds the sacrifices and uncertainties hard to stomach. The situation, she concludes, is “strange and bewildering.”
All these themes are common paradoxes and compromises of foreign occupation, hauntingly familiar in Iraq today but rarely so crisply expressed. Instead, in 2003, we steeped ourselves in “lessons learned” and absorbed the abstract doctrines taught by Western governments for dealing with “post-conflict” situations: management, counterinsurgency, and economics. Our reports referred to “capacity-building,” “hearts and minds,” “civil society,” “truth and reconciliation,” “governance,” and “micro-credit.” Our mission statements postulated dizzying relationships between free markets and peace, terrorism and human rights, elections and growth. These opaque words obscured the gap between our aspirations and our power, concealed the necessity for compromises with lesser evils, conflated problems with solutions, and disguised our failure.
Bell’s writing is both more lively and more honest. She is open in her use of paradox and irony, her expression of unpleasant truths. She acknowledges impotence and comedy, without denying her moral responsibility. She admits the uncertainty and difficulty of trying to make policy in such an environment. This is almost never dressed up in jargon or platitude. To take a few examples from her letters in 1920:
…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.”
Such comments—which may seem simple to an outsider—are difficult to articulate within an active mission and under the orders of a strong bureaucracy. Bell’s political reports avoid economic or legal or political theory and instead focus on identifying and describing the most powerful, effective, and representative Iraqi figure in specific districts, from the sheikhs on the Tigris to the ayatollahs in Najaf. Although Bell was prejudiced in favor of aristocratic tribal warriors, she was conscious that Arab notions of leadership did not correspond with her own. Thus Bell acknowledges Ibn Saud—the founder of Saudi Arabia—as the greatest leader in contemporary Arabia while conceding that
his deliberate movements, his slow sweet smile and the contemplative glance of his heavy-lidded eyes… do not accord with Western conception of a vigorous personality….
Her views had been refined by her travels as a lone European in remote areas, dining and sleeping in tents, during which she had observed sheikhs in their majlis, or “meeting-place,” receiving beggars, petitioners, and sycophants, judging recalcitrant tribesmen, commanding in battle, and settling vendettas.
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