Rory Stewart: Gertrude Bell ... The Queen of the Quagmire





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.

Bell's letters, now all available on-line in an archive prepare by the Newcastle University library, suggest that Bell's strength la not in her political success—she did not succeed in forming sustainable, stable, unified Iraqi state—but in the clarity an imagination with which she explored failure. She wrote almost a 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."...


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