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Churchill's Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq

Churchill's Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq

4.3 4
by Christopher Catherwood

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As Britain's colonial secretary in the 1920s, Winston Churchill made a mistake with calamitous consequences and unseen repercussions extending into the twenty-first century. Christopher Catherwood, scholar and adviser to Tony Blair's government, examines Churchill's creation of the artificial monarchy of Iraq after World War One, forcing together unfriendly


As Britain's colonial secretary in the 1920s, Winston Churchill made a mistake with calamitous consequences and unseen repercussions extending into the twenty-first century. Christopher Catherwood, scholar and adviser to Tony Blair's government, examines Churchill's creation of the artificial monarchy of Iraq after World War One, forcing together unfriendly peoples—Sunni Muslim Kurds and Arabs, and Shiite Muslims—under a single ruler. Defying a global wave of nationalistic sentiment and the desire of subjugated peoples to rule themselves, Churchill put together the broken pieces of the Ottoman Empire and unwittingly created a Middle Eastern powder keg. Inducing Arabs under the thumb of the Ottoman Turks to rebel against rule from Constantinople, the British during WWI convinced the Hashemite clan that they would rule over Syria. However, Britain had already promised the territory to the French. To make amends after the Great War, Churchill created the nation called Iraq and made the Hashemite leader, Feisel, king of a land to which he had no connections. Catherwood examines Churchill's decision, which resulted in a 1958 military coup against the Iraqi Hashemite government and a series of increasingly bloody regimes until the ultimate nightmare of Ba'athist party rule under Saddam Hussein. Photographs and maps are included.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This compelling volume raises eerie echoes of present-day Iraq. In the aftermath of WWI, France and Britain competed for the Mideastern leftovers of the Ottoman Empire. The British grabbed Palestine, attempted to set up puppet monarchies in Arabia and in 1921 cobbled together hostile peoples-Kurds and Sunni and Shiite Arabs-into the artificial and unstable kingdom of Iraq, ruled by the imposed Hashemite king Faisal. Cambridge historian Catherwood asserts that this form of indirect rule was "empire lite" as fashioned by Churchill, then colonial minister. The British, drained economically by the world war, were greedy for spoils and wanted the benefits of empire on the cheap. The vastness of Iraq proved impossible to govern by a reduced garrison. Catherwood, a consultant to Tony Blair's cabinet, sees contemporary parallels in the unlearned lessons of "imperial overreach." Unwanted paternalistic protectorates have a way of imploding, Catherwood notes. Churchill conceded wryly that Britain was spending millions "for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having." In a readable historical essay stretched into a short book, Catherwood demonstrates yet again that one generation's pragmatism can be a later generation's tragedy. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How did things get so messy in Mesopotamia? In part, because of Iraq's founding at the hands Winston Churchill, "undoubtedly brilliant but utterly lacking in any kind of judgment."As Britain's colonial secretary in the early 1920s, Churchill was a principal in carving up the vast, now-fallen Ottoman Empire-which, Catherwood (History/Cambridge Univ.) suggests, sided with Germany in WWI after Churchill, then naval secretary, had requisitioned for his own fleet heavy warships due by contract to the Ottoman navy. Churchill did some of that carving with an eye to the old divide-and-conquer strategy: distribute the Kurds across several states, he seems to have thought, and they would make no trouble; let national lines slice through ethnic ones, and the residents of Iraq (and Palestine, for that matter) would be so busy squabbling with one another that they would have no energy to cause trouble outside their borders. So it was that modern Iraq arose, an artificial creation that encompassed three majority ethnic and religious groups (Shia and Sunni Muslims and Kurds), along with many minority groups, all headed by a Hashemite (Saudi) king whom Churchill selected with an eye to pliability. That was a mistake, Catherwood suggests, if an expedient one: "Choosing Feisal," he writes, "was far from being an Iraqi-centered solution-which would have entailed choosing the best person for Iraq, or, better still, letting the new Iraqis have a genuine say over how their new state was to be ruled." Given Mesopotamia's oil wealth, it was in Britain's interest to have such an ally in power, but Churchill was hampered by several unpleasant realities: King Feisal began to resist orders almost immediately, andChurchill had trouble keeping peace in the region because the British government was constantly trying to rule on the cheap. The legacy: after the British occupiers left, Iraq endured 58 governments in 37 years, "a sure sign of chronic, unresolved instability"-and a pattern of chaos ended only by the rise of Saddam Hussein. An impressive study on the making of modern Iraq, with all its crises and catastrophes. Agent: Gene Brissie/James Peters Associates

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.24(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.03(d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Catherwood teaches history at Cambridge University and the University of Richmond (Virginia). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and has served as a consultant to the Strategy Unit of Tony Blair's cabinet, working in the Admiralty Building where Winston Churchill was based as First Lord of the Admiralty.

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Churchill's Folly : How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Christopher Catherwood rightly reminds his audience that the course of history results from the decisions and whims of outstanding individuals as well as impersonal forces and inevitable economic factors (pg. 13). In March 1921, Winston Churchill, the newly appointed Secretary of State for the colonies and his advisers re-mapped the Middle East at the Cairo conference to primarily advance British interests in the region from the ruins of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire (pg. 125). The imperial, pan-Arabic ambitions of the Hashemite family, bone fide senior descendants of Prophet Mohammed, also played a key role in modeling the region (pg. 47, 50-51, 102, 123, 129, 143, 156). The ill-fated Sykes-Pico Agreement made in 1916 between France and Britain to contain Tsarist Russia in the region became meaningless after the fall of the Russian imperial government in 1917 (pg. 56, 64). However, this agreement was not far from the minds of conference participants. The Sykes-Pico Agreement has been perceived in some quarters as both a self-inflicted curse on the British and a betrayal to the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule (pg. 42-43, 53, 61-62, 78-79, 122). In addition, events outside the direct control of conference participants were shaping the outcome of this conference. The war-weary and very battered British Empire faced severe budgetary constraints following the ruinous Great War. Furthermore, the war between Greece and Turkey waged after the end of WWI represented an additional constraint placed on conference participants, and especially on Churchill whose position in the cabinet depended solely on the goodwill of Lloyd George, his political boss (pg. 107-108, 161). Churchill strongly opposed the disastrous pan-Hellenism of Prime Minister Lloyd George that ultimately resulted in the fall of the government by the end of 1922 (pg. 38-39, 60-61, 80, 198). Churchill sensibly believed in the appeasement of Turkey to avoid a widespread Muslim rebellion in some British colonies, one of the many ironies of his long political life (pg. 70, 82, 98). One of the legacies of the Cairo conference was the creation of Iraq, the result of the amalgamation of the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. This creation had disastrous consequences for the Kurds until the instauration of the no-fly zones in 1991 and for the Shia Muslims until the toppling of former President Saddam Hussein in 2003 (pg. 26, 92, 106-107, 125, 135-136, 150, 221-224). At the insistence of Feisal, a Sunni Arab and the first King of Iraq, the British integrated the predominantly Sunny Kurds into Iraq to better balance the Shia Muslim majority in Southern Iraq with the Sunni Arabs in the center (pg. 26). The British wrongly assumed that nationalism was stronger than religion (pg. 229-230). As Catherwood correctly points out, the real problem was ultimately how to square imperial designs of France and Britain in the region with President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and especially with the policy of self-determination described in the fifth point (pg. 66, 112, 172-173). Britain had to do as if the Iraqi people had acclaimed overwhelmingly Feisal, while pulling the strings behind the scene to get the desired result (pg. 96, 124, 131, 151-152, 163, 170, 188). However, the British wrongly underestimated Feisal's determination to become his own man in the eyes of his new subjects (pg. 153, 171, 176, 185-190, 197). Unlike the French, the British did not, however, use force to get rid of Feisal but left him on his throne as the best deal available to them to preserve their interests in the region (pg. 142-144, 174-175). To the British, having an Arab King in Iraq and having some form of indirect British rule there were not incompatible objectives. The British Empire was largely built on indirect rule that turned out to be a cheap way to run an empire (pg. 58, 142, 212). Surprisingly from the vintage of 21st century observers, oil was the missing
Guest More than 1 year ago
By contrast, I enjoyed this book as it makes clear why we are in the present mess in Iraq, based upon a detailed study of Churchill's own archive. As a present day explanation for past events, you could not improve upon this book
Guest More than 1 year ago
A moderately interesting read, that did add some good historical context to the current situation that should be understood. Overall a disappointment in that the writing was poorly organized and written in a less than riveting fashion. Basically this is an analysis of Churchill's correspondence of the time, it could have been so much more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the best history books on this troubled region in many years, made more interesting by the close involvement in the process of no less than the great Winston Churchill himself. A must read for those interested in history.