LONDON - In 1936, British writer H G Wells wrote the screenplay for director
Alexander Korda's classic film Things to Come, based on his own 1933
novel. In both book and film a frighteningly prescient aerial Blitz hits London
(renamed "Everytown"). The world descends into conflict. Decades of internecine
Then, from afar, a new order arises. Calling itself the "last trustee of
civilization", this self-appointed organization - a proto-United Nations called
Wings Over The World (WOTW) - seeks to reshape the world. It sends giant flying
aircraft to impose an "air
dictatorship", dispersing "peace gas" from their bomb bays to disarm all
A peace conference to build a new global renaissance takes place at the WOTW
"Mediterranean Region Headquarters". Aid and reconstruction are delivered from
this headquarters to what is left of war-scarred Britain. The location and
source of this munificence envisaged by Wells just over 70 years ago? None
other than the city of Basra, southern Iraq.
Such are the ironies of history. Today the port city of Basra now represents
the flip side of Wells' imaginative vision. Flawed external intervention,
insurgent violence, corruption and shambolic infrastructure characterize the
city today. There has been little resurgence for Basra despite four years of
British administration. And there's scant chance today of a "peace gas" to
mollify Basra's current Shi'ite insurgents, harrying British troops as they
downsize force levels in the city.
The coming weeks will see British forces retrench further in Basra as they
consolidate their remaining forces downward after four years of occupation. An
urgent question has been posed in both London and Washington. Are the British
now moving to quit southern Iraq early irrespective of previous commitments to
stay the course?
This week, amid the swirling cross-currents of mid-Atlantic media claim and
counter-claim, Britain's new prime minister, Gordon Brown, gave his answer: no
chance. Instead, Brown reaffirmed his promise to President George W Bush, made
at their first meeting at Camp David last month: Britain has "duties to
discharge and responsibilities to keep".
No timetable exists for a final British withdrawal from Iraq, insists the
British premier. There will be no Saigon-style evacuation of British troops
from Iraq any time soon. Nevertheless, speculation as to Britain's record in
Iraq and future strategic choices for Basra has led to some tetchiness between
Britain and the US of late. The mood music between allies is a little
discordant at the moment. Here's why: the United States has many complaints
about the way Britain is handling its Iraq strategy. And Britain's record in
Iraq is indeed mixed.
These are the facts on the ground in southern Iraq today. The situation remains
one of grim fluidity. British strategy in southern Iraq has morphed since 2003
from reconstruction and security building to one of uneasy "over-watch" today -
the training of Iraqi government security forces prior to the phased handover
of security responsibilities.
Since 2003, Britain has sought to engage local Shi'ite political forces in
Basra using negotiation and counterinsurgency experience gained in Northern
Ireland and Malaya. But the results have not been pretty. Three local Shi'ite
militias - the largest is the Mahdi Army led by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
- have all refused to play British tunes. Forty-three British soldiers have
been killed this year alone. More than 60 mortar and rocket attacks slam into
British targets daily.
And two of the provincial governors installed by the Iraqi government have been
assassinated in recent weeks. Since 2006, British military commanders and their
US counterparts strongly suspect the Iraqi security apparatus to be deeply
corrupt and infiltrated by insurgents. But Britain has now handed back three of
the four Iraqi provinces under their control to the Iraqi government. The
fourth is expected by the end of this year. The British Army will also shortly
hand over its base at Basra Palace to the Iraqi government.
The palace garrison of some 500 soldiers will shortly leave to be based at
Basra Airport; a last redoubt. Out of 18,000 British troops committed in 2003,
there will soon be no more than 5,500. But just exactly whom will the British
be handing everything over to? Shi'ite insurgents in Iraqi police and army
uniforms? This is what's ringing alarm bells in Washington.
In August, a US intelligence source described Britain's counterinsurgency
tactics as both a strategic failure and a defeat. Retired US Army General Jack
Keane also recently highlighted the risks to the US of inheriting infiltrated
Iraqi security forces. Privately, senior British commanders concur, and are
also now telling journalists that their denuded forces are only capable of
In the meantime, Shi'ite militias - with suspected Iranian-supplied weaponry -
are jockeying for position for the prize of chasing Britannia all the way to
Basra Airport's departure gate. This week's announcement from Muqtada that his
militia will "freeze" its activities for the next six months has more to do
with internal discipline issues rather than a desire to stop sniping at and
mortaring British soldiers.
Add in growing evidence of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's apparent
readiness to "fill any power vacuum created in Iraq" and nagging US doubts over
British strategy will persist. In this light, Britain's record in Iraq may
indeed be seriously flawed.
But consider Britain's other political and military considerations, even as it
commits to what amounts to at least 18 months further in Basra and considers a
financial cost since 2003 of perhaps US$12 billion. First come the dangers of
British military overstretch. In Afghanistan, the British are engaged in a
high-intensity conflict with the Taliban in Helmand province. British diplomats
recently suggested that London sees military commitment to Afghanistan as a
grueling 20-year prospect.
Politically, Brown also wants to show - for domestic consumption - that Britain
is capable of action independent from the US after an unpopular war. At the
same time, he is fully conscious of the danger of power vacuums. After all, the
60th anniversary of Britain's exodus from India in 1947 is currently being
marked. Under partition, Britain left a poisonous legacy in its imperial wake:
2 million killed in Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence.
Yet the real issue for many British policymakers is much wider than Basra, Iraq
or Afghanistan: the geostrategic specter of militant Islam. Britain's most
senior - and most respected - military commander, General Sir Richard Dannatt,
said this week that while he hopes for "some success in Iraq", Britain should
be preparing for a wider "generation of conflict". In Churchillian language, he
pointed to the threat from "a strident Islamic shadow over the world and a
global conflict of values and ideas".
For now, the British Union flag flies over Basra. But Basra will be an
unraveling force, torn apart by insurgent violence and hardly the model of
reconstruction and resurgence the British hoped for in 2003. Brown will be
hoping that he can hold the line in Basra until a final end game - during
2008-09 - can be engineered in tandem with the US.
So Wells' future vision of Basra as the exemplar of modernity will sit firmly
within the realms of fantasy. Of course, there are still plenty of other
ironies and strange symmetries in both book and film to divert readers and
movie buffs alike. The supranational entity Wings Over The World, which wants
to remake the globe, "believes in order and trade and world civilization, while
It is above all modern: "a brotherhood of efficiency and freemasonry of
science". It represents "order and sanity". It wants to sweep away all concepts
of national sovereignty and replace it by an ultra-modern internationalism. War
is to be outlawed in the interests of self-appointed guardians of truth.
Individuals must submit; globalization must prevail; there can be no dissenting
voices or local solutions.
There are clear echoes here of the twin nightmares of communism and fascism
that emerged out of the horrors of World War I (1914-18) to haunt the political
and cultural discourse of the 1930s. But Wells' concept of global policing also
sounds suspiciously like former British prime minister Tony Blair's own
obsessions. While in office, he insisted on a foreign policy of "liberal
Britain has certainly paid a blood price for it. Likewise, it's a similar
vision to that proffered by the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration
that prevailed in the policy debate in the United States after September 11,
2001. Many in the Islamic world could also argue - with some justification -
that Wells' fictional global remaking is little different from the reality of
United Nations-sanctioned coalition action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2007, Things to Come remains as engaging as when written and filmed
in the 1930s. Except that its visions mean little in blighted Basra today.
Things have come indeed for Basra - and for Iraq generally - but they're not
the shining utopia of Wells' imagination.