It is imperative to understand the lessons learnt and lost from the last century of British interventions in the Middle East. Despite officially withdrawing from the Iraq war in 2009, the British Government has retained an extensive military presence in the region – as it has done for the last century. For this reason, it is clear that formal military engagement in the Middle East has long been an integral part of the state’s repertoire and self-image.
Historically, British military intervention has been marked by self-identified failures, most conspicuously in Iraq with surrender at Kut-al-Amara in 1916 and the decision to participate in the US-led intervention in 2003 that led to a protracted programme of state-building. Both events were followed by official inquiries: the Mesopotamia Commission (1917) and the Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry (2009-2016). Both inquiries offered a remarkably similar verdict: the failure was one of poor planning and execution. The similarity was so striking that the Chilcot inquiry referred to the Mesopotamia Commission as the ‘first Iraq inquiry’. Yet to date, there has been no comparative research of either inquiry or the lessons learnt.
Led by Dr Owen Thomas, Professor Catriona Pennell, and Dr Margot Tudor, this Leverhulme-funded project will compare how these two inquiries were conducted, and what this reveals of the political culture of learning lessons. This interdisciplinary project brings together scholarship and methods from History, Politics, and International Relations to deconstruct how inquiries received and produced knowledge, influencing how contemporaries narrativized or remembered the intervention. Rather than focusing why the interventions failed, we want to centre how particular lessons came to be foregrounded and promoted by the inquiry.
1. To produce new knowledge of the cultures, values and beliefs that have shaped how Britain conducted and understood its intervention and grand strategy in the Middle East over the past 100 years;
2. To show how learning and understanding is contingent upon cultural preferences for particular approaches to knowledge production;
3. To foster awareness and enhance understanding of the lessons learnt and lost from episodes of British interventionism, thereby destabilising current narratives and revealing the artificial limits of British political imaginings of military intervention.
More than a simple comparison of these two inquiries’ reports, we seek to unearth the unique methodology of state-led inquiries by analysing archival documents of the process. This project questions how public inquiries were established, who was invited to participate, and which voices were favoured. These questions allow us to understand how political cultures imagine what a ‘proper inquiry’ should look like, amplifying the voices and perspectives of certain individuals over others. Rather than providing an apolitical interpretation of events, inquiries privileged legalistic approaches to responsibility, hierarchising individual experiences and limiting the value of other sources of evidence. Thus, we argue that the inquiry is, in itself, a political act – not simply an extractive exercise – that empowers its non-judicial staff with highly significant decisions about the future of Britain’s self-image and perceived role in the Middle East.