Thursday, May 16, 2024

Review Pride And Power, A Modern History Of Iraq

Franzen, Johan, Pride And Power, A Modern History Of Iraq, Hurst & Company, 2020


Pride And Power, A Modern History Of Iraq by Johan Franzen is a very dense history of Iraq from the Ottoman period to the present. It is chock full of detail after detail. There are some new bits of information relayed but the last third of the book that starts with the Gulf War falters. Its version of the 2003 invasion is especially disappointing making it an uneven book.


The book is named after the two major forces which the author believes shaped Iraqi history. Franzen writes that Iraqis were driven by honor and nationalism which he calls pride. That led to Baghdad constantly pushing for independence from England and then to end its influence afterwards as London still had overwhelming influence over the country. At the same time there was a constant struggle for power between elites and the military.


The author actually makes a much more interesting observation in the conclusion that Iraq was founded not to serve its people but the British empire. It was never that important however so London never allocated the funds to create strong institutions. That was just as important for the following decades as a weak government meant it could be manipulated by the elite whether it be the king, the regent or army officers. That also meant the state couldn’t control its territory or people so armed groups and foreigners were constant problems. The Kurds for instance revolted against Baghdad almost from the creation of the country. Iran and Israel also supported them for many years manipulating them in an attempt to keep Iraq weak and pre-occupied with its internal problems. That seems like a much more precent theory than the more esoteric ones of pride and power. 


Franzen brings a great level of depth to his writing but that is not always a positive. For instance, during the Mandate and Monarchy a prime minister would usually only last for a few months meaning the author has to cover a lot of different governments. The problem is he lists all the major ministers for each one. Sometimes that’s important because it shows that the same small core of elites constantly came in and out of government. On the other hand, many times it just reads like a list of people and there’s little explanation of why any of the men were important or different from others. That makes the book for researchers and experts not the casual reader.


On the positive side Franzen uncovered some new stories. When General Qasim and the Free Officers seized power in 1958 for instance, it caused a regional and international crisis. The US and UK met and discussed intervening because they thought the coup was led by General Nasser of Egypt. President Eisenhower landed Marines in Lebanon and the British sent units to Jordan. London and Washington decided not to send any forces but then Turkey said it would invade. The US warned Ankara not to and eventually it was decided to recognize the new government. There isn’t another history book that explains how much the 1958 coup scared the West and the region.


The greatest fault with the book is the last part from the Gulf War to the present. There is just so much missing from the narrative. Franzen’s discussion of the causes of the U.S. invasion of Iraq for instance barely mentions President Bush. The author is much more focused upon the neoconservatives in the administration who were not major decision makers. It’s as if the move to overthrow Saddam was made by mid-level players in the White House rather than Bush. It’s a major failing of many other books about the Iraq War and Pride And Power doesn’t escape that trap. It also misses the growing consensus amongst the political class in the U.S. for regime change which started in the 1990s. By the time of the Bush presidency most of Washington both liberal and conservative believed Saddam should go they just disagreed about the means and timing. It was not just the neoconservatives as Franzen would have the reader believe.


Pride And Power is a good book for academics and researchers on Iraqi history. There are many interesting points made about the Ottomans, the British, the monarchy, etc. The problems begin with the modern era when there are several shortcomings especially when it comes to Iraq-US relations. The discussion of the American invasion is sorely lackinga. It's also not for the casual reader as the density of the writing can be intimidating. It’s best read by someone that already has an understanding of Iraq because that will make it easier to digest.


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