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To understand the Middle East, read this book - Or at least read this review


Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia is a masterpiece and the best book in years on the history of the Middle East and the origins of today's problems in the region.

 

A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and national bestseller, the book goes back to the root causes of many of the current conflicts in the Middle East?to the years immediately preceding the First World War, the years during the war, and the years immediately following the war.

 

These were the years in which the imperial powers of Britain and France lied to Arab nationalists about the prospects of Arab independence, thwarted the willingness of the nationalists to live in harmony with Jews and Christians, used the lure of a Jewish state as an inducement for Palestine Jews and international Jewry (who were initially lukewarm about Zionism) to take the side of the Entente in the war and to suck the United States into the war, and clumsily redrew the map of the Middle East like first graders trying to color a map with Crayolas. 

 

The book should be read--but will not be read--by every member of Congress, by every reporter, and by every American who wants to understand the danger and futility of nation-building in the region. 

 

Published in 2013, and of course written over many years before that, the book was prescient about the current situation in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Libya. To see how prescient, let's begin at the end, by reading a lengthy excerpt from the epilogue, specifically pages 493 and 494.  It's a history lesson that might leave you gasping and wailing in despair that Santayana's warning about not learning from history wasn't heeded by the United States, which instead of learning from the follies of Britain and France, entered the snake pit of the Middle East and engaged in its own follies in the region, thus ending the respect and admiration that Arabs had for America in the early decades of the twentieth century.

 

From there [the immediate postwar years], matters simply turned worse for the West.  By the 1930s, the British faced a quagmire in the Palestine mandate they had schemed so hard to obtain, first a full-scale Arab revolt fueled by increasing Jewish immigration into the region, joined after World War II by attacks from Jewish guerillas who saw the British occupiers as the last roadblock toward the creation of Israel.  In 1946, the war-exhausted French were forced to give up their cherished Syrie integrale, but not before carving out a new nation, Lebanon, from its territory [of Syria]; within three years, Syria's pro-Western democratic government would be ousted in a military coup, and the convoluted governing structure imposed by the French in Lebanon would set the country on the path to civil war.  In 1952, British control of Egypt ended when their puppet king was overthrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his nationalist Free Officers Movement, followed six years later by a military coup in Iraq by like-minded junior officers that ended the pro-Western monarchy established by Faisal [Faisal ibn Hussein].  By the 1960s, with the era of European imperialism drawing to its unceremonious close, the Middle East resembled the shambles the colonial powers were leaving behind in other parts of the globe, but with one critical difference:  because of oil, the region had now become the most strategically vital corner on earth, and the West couldn't walk away from the mess it had helped create there even if it wanted to.  What has transpired there over the past half century is, of course, familiar to all:  four wars between the Arabs and Israelis; a ten-year civil war in Lebanon and a twenty-year one in Yemen; the slaughter of ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq; four decades of state-sponsored terrorism; convulsions of religious extremism; four major American military interventions and a host of smaller ones; and for the Arab people, until very recently, a virtually unbroken string of cruel and/or kleptocratic dictatorships stretching from Tunisia to Iraq that left the great majority impoverished and disenfranchised.

 

Certainly, blame for all this doesn't rest solely with the terrible decisions that were made at the end of World War I, but it was then that one particularly toxic seed was planted.  Ever since, Arab society has tended to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to:  colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms.  This culture of opposition has been manipulated?indeed, feverishly nurtured?by generations of Arab dictators intent on channeling their people's anger away from their own misrule in favor of the external threat, whether it is "the great Satan" or the "illegitimate Zionist entity" or Western music playing on the street of Cairo.  In an ironic and unforeseen way, that era now appears to be coming to an end.  Beginning with the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but greatly accelerated by the so-called Arab Spring movements that have roiled the region since 2010, the established order has steadily eroded before the force of the "Arab street."  Thus far, though, that "street" has shown little sign of coalescing around any notion of Arab unity, let alone the old dream of a greater Arab nation, but very much the opposite:  a reversion to the balkanized patchwork of ethnic and religious enclaves that existed under the Ottoman millet system.  While no American government official will publicly admit it, Iraq today [2013] has largely devolved into three mini-states, divided along those sectarian and ethnic lines?Kurdish, Shia and Sunni?that predated the Western imperial mapmakers.  With the overthrow of Muamar Qaddafi, Libya too, is rapidly becoming a nation in name only, separating into the three principal tribal regions that existed even before the Ottomans.  With the brutal civil war in Syria now entering the fourth year, there is open talk of further disintegration there, of the ruling Alawite minority potentially carving out a mini-nation consisting of their ancestral strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.  Today, it appears increasingly clear that one result of the intensifying turmoil across the Middle East will be a redrawing of many of these arbitrary frontiers imposed by the West nearly a century ago; whether the new lines foster greater harmony or even greater fractiousness, however, is anyone's guess.

 

Now let's delve back into main body of the book.

 

The book follows the exploits of six key figures in the Middle East, circa the First World War: 

 

?         Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence), the British Army officer and Arab sympathizer and expert whose military and political exploits were dramatized in the award-winning movie "Lawrence of Arabia."

?         Mark Sykes, the British aristocrat who conspired with his French counterpart Picot to craft the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement, one of the most underhanded and despicable plans in history to carve up a region for the purpose of maintaining colonial empires and sharing the spoils of war;

?          William Yale, who was a descendant of the family that founded Yale University, who was originally employed by Standard Oil of New York to surreptitiously find oil deposits in the Middle East and snooker the Arabs into signing concessions, and who later finagled an intelligence and liaison position with the American and British military in the Middle East by falsely portraying himself as an expert on the region;

?         Aaron Aaronsohn, the noted Jewish agronomist who became a rabid Zionist with racist views of Arabs;

?         Chaim Weizmann, the moderate Zionist who initially was willing to reach an accommodation with Arab nationalists until the imperial powers thwarted that plan, and who would later become the first president of Israel (and whose sister was a spy for the Germans early in the war and had an affair with the German spy described next); 

?         Curt Prufer, the German spy and provocateur who tried various schemes to convince Jews and Arabs to support Germany and the other Great Powers in the war.

 

T. E. Lawrence is the most controversial and most insightful figure.  As an example of his insights, he warned the British government that "if a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine it will have to be done by force of arms and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population." He wrote this after the Arab's understandable distrust of England and France was deepened by the British Balfour Declaration, which suggested that Britain would support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine after the war.

 

Lawrence's influence continues today.  For example, during the American military surge in Iraq, the U.S. commander in chief, General David Petraeus, required his senior officers to read Lawrence's treatise on the Arabs, Twenty-Seven Articles, so that they would better understand the Iraqi people.  The only problem was that Petraeus apparently skipped Lawrence's qualifier that his advice applied only to the Bedouin population, who make about only two percent of the total Iraq population and who do not think like Arab townspeople.

 

Aaron Aaronsohn is a figure that Israelis probably wish would be forgotten by history.  Among other embarrassing antagonisms, the radical Zionist wrote a position paper in which he railed against the fellaheen Palestinians, calling them "squalid, superstitious, ignorant."  He freely acknowledged that at times they had been forcibly removed from their land by Jewish settlers, and he threatened that it would happen again if he had his way.  He even confirmed that Jews kept themselves apart from their Arab neighbors, writing as follows:  "We are glad of it.  From national, cultural, educational, technical and more hygienic points of view, this policy has had to be strictly adhered to; otherwise the whole Jewish Renaissance movement would fail."  Excerpts of the position paper were later published in the Arab Bulletin.  Aaronsohn would take his views to the United States to drum up support among Jewish Americans for a Jewish state in Palestine.

 

Chaim Weizmann, a naturalized British citizen, was an ?migr? from czarist Russia and a chemist who developed a revolutionary process to create synthetic acetone, a key ingredient in explosives.  An influential figure at international Zionist conferences, he was one of the most convincing and articulate advocates for a Jewish state.  In 1908, nine years before the Balfour Declaration, he had helped form the Palestine Land Development Company, which had the charter to buy agricultural land in Palestine for Jewish settlements.   One wonders if present-day Jewish-Arab relations would be better or the same if this non-coercive way of establishing Jewish settlements had continued.

 

Mark Sykes, the co-author of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, would later meet with Weizmann and Aaronsohn and other Zionists to discuss the establishment of a Jewish state.  Under the original Sykes-Picot Agreeement, Palestine was to be separated from the rest of Syria and administered jointly by the three Entente powers of Britain, France and Russia (Russia was still in the war at the time and had not as yet been taken over by the Bolsheviks).  Sykes later began lobbying the British government to abandon that plan and place Palestine under a British protectorate.  His thinking was that this would appeal to Jewish Zionists, given their distrust of France and hatred for czarist Russia.  Of course, these ideas were not shared with the Arabs, who had been led to believe that they would have self-determination.

 

William Yale, the American intelligence officer and liaison to the British and French allies, would eventually meet with Lawrence to discuss President Wilson's "Fourteen Points for Peace" proclamation of 1918.  To quote from Lawrence in Arabia:

 

In his conversation with William Yale, Lawrence emphasized the enormous esteem in which Arabs of all stripes held the United States.  Indeed, so forcefully did Lawrence hit on this note that in his summing up of their conversation for Leland Harrison [special assistant to the U.S. secretary of state], Yale noted that the main points "upon which all evidence is agreed, are the distrust of the Arabs in the good faith of England and of France; the opposition to Zionism; and the complete confidence of the Arabs in the United States."

 

My, how Arab views of the United States have changed.

 

Most historians view Wilson's "Fourteen Points" as utopian, but at the time it captivated the world with its vision of replacing imperialism and colonialism with self-determination.

 

Allow me to digress to another part of the world not covered in Lawrence in Arabia.  The Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh was one of those captivated by Wilson's vision, thinking that Wilson and his administration would support his cause of ending French colonialism in Indochina.  But his overtures to Wilson were spurned, just as his later overtures to Franklin Roosevelt were spurned, although FDR disdained colonialism and was sympathetic to Ho's cause.  This is detailed in the wonderful book on the lead-up to the Vietnam War, Embers of War, by Fredrik Logevall, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  The book makes a compelling case that Ho would not have become a doctrinaire communist, would not have allied with China, and would have stayed on friendly terms with America if the U.S. had taken a stand against French colonialism and in favor of self-determination in Indochina.  Instead, the U.S. stepped in where France left off, fighting the Vietnam War, losing over 50,000 American lives, changing how many Americans saw their government, and bringing about cultural and ideological divides in the American polity that still exist today.

 

In retrospect, the "Fourteen Points" didn't have a chance to stem the damage caused by the First World War, a war that triggered the Bolshevik Revolution and the mass starvation and purges that followed, and that led directly to the horrors of Hitler and the Second World War.

 

Speaking of Hitler, Lawrence in Arabia mentions a little known fact:  that one reason that Hitler resented the Jews was that he remembered how international Jewry had switched from being mostly neutral in the First World War to being on the side of the Entente against Germany, especially after Russia left the Entente as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution.  He wrongly saw German Jews as disloyal to the Fatherland and a threat to the Third Reich.  This myth was fueled by Hitler remembering another event at the close of the First World War:  Just two days before the armistice, a coalition of leftist parties had taken control of the German government.  Hitler saw all of them as traitors.

 

Curt Prufer, after his spying days in the Middle East, would buy into the myth and perpetuate it in his later job as Hitler's ambassador to Brazil.

 

Let's return to the Middle East and end this review with an event that continues to have repercussions today.  At the Paris Peace Conference at war's end, Chaim Weizmann and Arab leader Faisal ibn Hussein joined forces to call for a combined Arab-Jewish state in Palestine, an effort that was sabotaged by the imperial designs of Britain and France.  This made Faisal and his father, King Hussein, targets of their more conservative Arab and Muslim rivals, including their chief rival in Arabia, ibn-Saud, who represented the extremist side of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saud clan would go on to establish Saudi Arabia, which became an ally of the United States, a major funder of Islamic terrorism, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and the fatherland of most of the 9/11 terrorists. 

 

In spite of this history, the United States demonized Saddam Hussein and Iraq after 9/11 but not the Saud regime in Saudi Arabia.  Even today, Saudi Arabia is still off-limits to criticism in some quarters.  For example, on August 25, the Wall Street Journal published the op-ed, "An American-Led Coalition Can Defeat ISIS," by retired four-star general Jack Keane, and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.   

 

The authors wrote that "the time has come to confront the government of Qatar, which funds and arms ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups such as Hamas."  They went on to say that we could exert pressure on Qatar by threatening to vacate our large military bases in the tiny country.  They made no mention of Saudi Arabia, a much larger and richer funder of terrorism.

 

Those who don't learn from history by reading books like Lawrence in Arabia are doomed to make fools of themselves and to doom the United States to continued folly.


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