Friday, October 3, 2008

Hurrying out of Germany and the Middle East in 1919

Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat its mistakes. We today are on the cusp of just such a mistake, one that could be prevented if we are willing to learn from history. Let’s consider what we know about 1919 and then relate it to the current desire on the part of the Obama to hurry out of Iraq at the present time:

As World War Two rolled around, the events that took place in Paris of 1919 were revisited and it was seen that mistakes were made in regard to Germany that made World War Two an inevitability. What were those mistakes and who made them? Probably France’s Clemenceau made most of them in respect to Germany; though he got the others to go along with him. Germany made France suffer grievously and Clemenceau believed it should be made to suffer in its turn. While this approach may have satisfied Clemenceau, it eventuated in far worse suffering for France in the not-too-distant future.

Yes, Yes, World War Two, but why an interest now? We are interested now because this 1919 Committee is the group that bollixed up the Middle East. They created the artificial borders that Arabs and other Muslims have fought over almost ever since. So who is this cast of players that set about to establish these artificial borders? We learned about the vindictive Clemenceau. Next we learned about the ignorant Lloyd Jones. Even if we knew nothing about the aftermath in Germany or the Middle East, we would believe that it didn’t bode well for them – if we knew anything about Clemenceau and Lloyd Jones. But perhaps Wilson could make a difference. He was certainly better informed than Lloyd Jones and not as vindictive as Clemenceau, but he tended to preach and to antagonize the people he needed to work with. Clemenceau told Colonel House, Wilson’s second in command, “You are practical. I understand you but talking to Wilson is something like talking to Jesus Christ.”

Another problem was that Clemenceau didn’t like Lloyd George. At another time he said in a phrase that went the rounds of Paris, “I find myself between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other.”

Macmillan writes, “Wilson puzzled him: ‘I do not think he is a bad man, but I have not yet made up my mind as to how much of him is good!’ He also found him priggish and arrogant. ‘What ignorance of Europe and how difficult all understandings were with him! He believed you could do everything by formulas and his fourteen points. God himself was content with ten commandments. Wilson modestly inflicted fourteen points on us . . . the fourteen commandments of the most empty theory!’”

Someone (was it Colin Powell?) said about the invasion of Iraq, “you break it, you own it,” and it is true that we were much better at the war than its aftermath, but the same sort of thing was true in 1919. Europe, the Middle East, and much of the rest of the world were “broken,” and this was the group that “owned” them. Would they do any better in the fixing of them than the Bush Administration did Iraq? Here is what Macmillan writes in Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919, on page 55:

“It was already two months since the end of the war, and people were wondering why so little had been accomplished. Part of the reason was that the Allies were not really ready for the sudden end of the fighting. Nor could they have been. All their energies had been devoted to winning the war. ‘What had we to do with peace,’ wrote Winston Churchill, ‘while we did not know whether we should not be destroyed? Who could think of reconstruction when the sole aim was to hurl every man and every shell into battle?’ Foreign offices, it is true, colonial ministries and war offices had dusted off old goals and drawn up new demands while the fighting went on. There had been attempts to think seriously about the peace: the British special inquiry, established in 1917, the French Comite d’Etudes and the most comprehensive of all, the American Inquiry, set up in September 1917 under House’s supervision. To the dismay of the professional diplomats, they had called on outside experts, from historians to missionaries, and had produced detailed studies and maps. The Americans had produced sixty separate reports on the Far East and the Pacific alone, which contained much useful information as well as such insights as that, in India, ‘a great majority of the unmarried consist of very young children.’ The Allied leaders had not paid much attention to any of their own studies.”

Thus we see that not only were the Allied leaders not using the best information available to them, there was apparently no one to convince the impatient Allied populaces that important decisions needed to be made and that if the committee rushed through the process precipitously, just because an ignorant populace couldn’t see what was taking them so long, the world would pay for that haste later on. And that is what did happen. The leaders were themselves ignorant and ill-prepared to “fix” what had become “broken,” but they knew how to listen to the folks back home who urged them to hurry, hurry, hurry. Those people back home didn’t know what was at stake and there was no one to explain it to them. What happened instead of a self (and populace)-education process is that the committee hurried and as a result the world became even more broken.

Some now suggest that enough is known about the world so that we should never again “break” a nation until we know how to “fix” it later on. That certainly is one lesson we should have learned from World War One and its aftermath, and we did learn it in regard to Europe. We “broke” Europe during WWII and did a much better job of fixing it the second time around, but we apparently haven’t “learned” anything in a universal way. What we learned in Europe (and Japan) isn’t being applied well to the Middle East.

Another thing that we should learn is that the populace is going to remain ignorant unless someone explains matters to them. It can’t be someone like Wilson who does it in an arrogant way. It can’t be someone like Clemenceau who would do it in a vindictive way, and it shouldn’t be someone like Lloyd George who is too ignorant of Foreign Affairs to do it intelligently, but it should be done. Otherwise, the populace will say, “hurry, hurry, hurry” pull out of Iraq, and we will rush off leaving this cornerstone of Middle-Eastern peace unfinished, unfixed, or at best poorly fixed and open to the increased possibility that we will one day have to go back and fix it again – at much greater cost.

Lawrence Helm

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