On March 6, 1947, not long after Britain had set a timetable for withdrawing both its troops and administration from India, Winston Churchill rose to speak in the House of Commons.
"The government by their fourteen-month time limit have put an end to all prospect of Indian unity," he said, denouncing this cut-and-run philosophy as "Operation Scuttle." "How can one suppose that the thousand-year gulf which yawns between Muslim and Hindu will be bridged in fourteen months?… How can we walk out of India in fourteen months and leave behind us a war between 90 million Muslims and 200 million caste Hindus? … Let us not add–by shameful flight, by a premature, hurried scuttle–to the pangs of sorrow many of us feel, the taint and smear of shame."
Sound familiar? Sixty years and some flowery rhetoric may separate Churchill’s speech from George W. Bush’s recent address, but arguments for maintaining colonial rule in India are almost identical to the justifications offered for the continuing presence of US troops in Iraq and escalation of the war.
To leave would be irresponsible, would open centuries-old wounds, spark civil war and generally do a great disservice to these people who have had the good fortune to be conquered and pillaged by us. They need and want us, though they have yet to find a way to show it. For deep down they understand that before they can be freed, they must first be subjugated.
Such is the catch-all defense of colonial regimes under pressure to withdraw.
Sometimes these predictions of chaos and bloodshed are borne out–for example, given free rein, strife between Muslims and Hindus in India did lead to at least half a million dead and 12 million homeless in the wake of independence. Often, however, they are not. Less than a month before South Africa’s first democratic elections, the Sunday Times of London warned of "a Bosnia raging on the southern tip of Africa." South Africa, it was claimed, "is a mishmash of 11 tribes and lacks the typical requirements of a functioning democracy," and stood poised on the verge of "decades of ethnic strife and the unnecessary deaths of thousands." What actually happened was the birth of a flourishing democracy that has shown far more stability over the past thirteen years than, say, Italy or Russia.
In the case of Iraq it would be wrong to insist that things could not get worse in the short term if US troops leave. We simply don’t know. The point is that they will clearly not get better so long as the troops remain. Whatever the solution to these deep-seated ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts might be, it is certainly not occupation. The partition of Pakistan and India was ugly. But colonialism was no less ugly and provided no better solution.
The same is true of Iraq. According to the United Nations, 34,452 Iraqi civilians were killed last year–that’s more than ninety-four a day. A further 36,685 were wounded–more than 100 a day. Meanwhile, according to another UN report, every day up to 2,000 Iraqis flee to Syria and another 1,000 to Jordan; since the bombing of the Samarra shrine last year, more than 1,000 Iraqis a day have been internally displaced. Troop withdrawal will not lead to civil war for the simple reason that civil war already exists. Indeed, the invasions and occupations that have historically been prescribed to solve civil wars are usually responsible for exacerbating them, if not creating them, with their arbitrary borders and divide-and-rule strategies.
Consider the history of Iraq. Back in 1918 the British government’s Lord Curzon decided Iraq should be ruled by an "Arab façade"–"veiled by constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state, and so on." Back then the intricacies of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish rivalries were subordinated to the West’s geopolitical interests. Now they are elevated to serve the same interests.
Thus in the minds of the powerful, invasions are transformed from acts of humiliation and plunder to those of humanitarianism and principle. The principles are flexible, the humanitarianism selective, but whether they are arguing to invade or against withdrawing, the essential logic underpinning them remains the same: Occupation is a selfless burden crucial not just to our material well-being but the moral uplift of our inferiors. To abandon it would be cruel.
"You cannot have omelettes without breaking eggs," said former colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain at a Royal Colonial Institute dinner in March 1897. "You cannot destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery, of superstition, which for centuries have desolated the interior of Africa, without the use of force…. Great is the task, great is the responsibility, but great is the honor."
More than a century later the notion that the colonizers should either break their own eggs or lay off the omelettes still has not sunk in. Which brings us back to Churchill, who has been enjoying something of a transatlantic revival of late.
It was his biography that could be found on the bedside table of then-Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani on the night of September 11; his bust that sat on the Oval Office desk following the attacks. It was his resolve that was evoked to justify the "war on terror"–no small irony since he was among the first to advocate the gassing of the Kurds. As president of the air council in 1919, he wrote: "I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas…. I am strongly in favor of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes." A few years later the Kurds got their first dose of mustard gas. When asked what he thought of Gandhi, Churchill referred to the Indian leader as "a half-naked fakir" who "ought to be laid, bound hand and foot, at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back."
For his part, Gandhi, when asked what he thought about Western civilization, said he thought "it would be a good idea."