Inventing the Middle East

By SHLOMO YOTVAT
March 7, 2011 22:46

A colorful portrayal of the main British, and later American, actors who helped mold a vast region over the last century.




Middle East

Middle East (do not publish again). (photo credit: Avi Katz)

“KINGMAKERS” IS AN interesting overview of 12 individuals who greatly influenced how the modern Middle East came into being.

Karl Meyer is former editor of the journal World Policy; Shareen Brysac, his wife, is a writer and former producer of documentaries for CBS News. This is their second collaboration: their previous 1999 book, “Tournament of Shadows,” looked at the Great Game in Central Asia. “Kingmakers” looks at an intriguing mixture of characters composed mostly of soldiers and secret agents, nine Britons and three Americans, an unconventional and special lot, who sought to carve new states out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and shape them in accordance with their ideals, while mostly staying behind the scenes – kingmakers, rather than the kings themselves.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Britain’s policymakers saw the Ottoman Empire as a counterweight to Russian territorial ambitions. However, after Britain and Russia signed an agreement in 1907, and Germany increasingly made its economic and military presence felt in Turkey – as embodied by the Berlin-Baghdad railway – the survival of the Ottoman Empire became less important to the British.

The changing diplomatic landscape gave an opening to a series of British colonial administrators and adventurers, who saw their chance to leave their mark on history. Some, like Lord Cromer, British consul-general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907 and its effective ruler, consciously acted in the name of the empire they served. Others, a more maverick bunch, operated with the semi-official backing of powerful protectors in the British colonial administration.

T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was a good example of the latter group. His wartime exploits had been preceded by his extensive exploration throughout the Middle East under the patronage of such important colonial figures as Lord Curzon and David Hogarth.

In her book “Heart Beguiling Araby,” historian Kathryn Tidrick describes how in 1919 the British public had been ready to exalt Lawrence; since after four years of “unprecedentedly horrible war, they welcomed the emergence of a glamorous hero; his white robes, unspotted by Flanders mud, who, it was said, had princes and potentates of Arabia at his command.”

The truth, the authors maintain, was that Lawrence’s influence was limited, despite the romantic illusions he peddled about the Arab movement that he helped lead in its military campaigns against the Turks. For all his praise for the noble desert warrior, his essential role was that of paymaster to the rebels. True, Lawrence did treat the Arabs with respect and empathy, and did secure their trust. But to some fighters, “he was the man with the gold.” And as the Hashemite prince and subsequent Iraqi king Emir Faisal remarked years later to the future Sir John Glubb, another kingmaker mentioned in the book, “Bedouins can be roused to do anything for honor, but once you give them money, the whole moral tone of your relations with them is lowered.”

Lawrence wrote an article on “The Changing East” in 1919 and contended that British influence among Arabs was better promoted by not giving direct orders to their leaders.

What was needed, wrote Lawrence, was a strong personality who had a sure touch with the locals. And, added Lawrence, Syria under Faisal should be “our first brown dominion.”


His chance came when Winston Churchill was appointed colonial secretary in 1921. As an advisor to the minister, he assisted the government to set Faisal on the throne of the newly created Iraq. (The French had taken care of the emir’s Syrian ambitions by throwing him out of the country the year before.)

A few of Lawrence’s colleagues, like Gertrude Bell, believed that through charisma and an ethical approach, it was possible to preside over the populaces of Syria, Iraq and Transjordan. Bell, a renowned archaeologist, was imperious and difficult, yet carried considerable clout. In November 1919, at a British military reception in Baghdad, all the local dignitaries flocked around her. Bell loved the desert that she had become intimately familiar with through her travels, writing that “silence and solitude fall around you like an impenetrable veil; there is no reality, but the long hours of riding.” In 1915, she became the first woman to work for the army intelligence services in Cairo, and later, Iraq. Arnold Wilson, the top colonial administrator in Iraq immediately after the war, admired her from the start; she was industrious and assisted him in a multitude of ways.

Bell and Lawrence saw Faisal and his fellow Hashemites as the embodiment of the true Arab elite and best of its culture. This admiration unfortunately led the local British officers and civil servants to discount the importance of the educated Arabs from the cities, whose European attire didn’t lend them the proper ‘true Arab’ aura. Further, Bell’s underlying belief that events in Iraq could be influenced by Faisal and parliamentary authority was flawed from the start. As historian Elie Kedourie quotes Bell declaring in 1924: “We agreed [now] that we have made a mistake ...[it is] useless to ask a people entirely unversed in politics to take, through its representatives, a vital decision as to its own future.”

It was in India that another kingmaker got his start. Harry St. John Philby was a colorful and multifaceted character, who served the British imperial Indian government in Iraq and Baghdad before his first mission to Arabia in 1917. From the point of view of the British in India, Arabia and the Gulf was the bridge between India, the jewel in the British crown, and British protectorates across Africa. Their emissaries, including Arnold Wilson, Percy Cox and Percy Sykes, fanned out over the region to secure the Persian Gulf and Iranian oil fields owned by British companies.

Philby was unquestionably shrewd, betting on the rising Wahabi chieftain Ibn Saud as the man likely to unite and rule the peninsula while most were touting the claims of Faisal and other members of the Hashemite family. And he proved his daring in a remarkable crossing of Arabia from sea to sea: only one other European had managed the feat before.

But Philby did more than bet on Ibn Saud: he threw his lot in with him. And he helped to broker the deals that helped American oil companies land the immensely valuable right to drill in the (as yet, undiscovered) oil fields in the early 1930s. Far from being a midwife to the further expansion of the British Empire’s commercial influence, he saw himself as assisting in the new kingdom’s emancipation.

THE RISING STAR OF ZIONISM made for some interesting bedfellows.

Mark Sykes, a member of the Foreign Office, who formulated the Arab Bureau in Cairo and co-author of the eponymous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 delineating the projected postwar areas of influence in the Ottoman lands between Britain and France, believed it was possible to forge an Arab-Armenian-Zionist alliance. Despite his earlier anti-Semitic musings in which he viewed Jews primarily as traders and moneylenders, several leading Jewish personages – among them, Rabbi Moses Gaster, Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolov and especially, Aaron Aaronsohn – impressed upon him that the Zionist movement embodied Jews of a different type.

But the authors don’t mention how Sykes, during his 1918 tour of Palestine in the last few months of his life, sensed the opposition of British officers to France’s mandate over Syria – and to the Balfour Declaration.

Attempts to secure some compromise between the Arabs in Syria and the Zionist movement were to no avail.

Lord Cromer also supported the settlement of Jews in the Land of Israel under British protection, as did Lawrence; the latter declared that the immigration of Jews would raise the standard of living of both Jews and Arabs in Palestine, an argument which underlay the 1919 Weizmann-Faisal agreement. Indeed, support for the Zionist cause stemmed – at least in part and initially – from the wish to economically develop Palestine and its neighbors.

However, dilution of British resources and the loss of overseas investments after World War I led Britain to regard Palestine as a backwater.

It was only during the period of the Arab revolt of 1936 – 1939 that it became to be viewed as strategically important. Palestine was turned into a military base out of fear that it might be attacked by Germany and Italy, if war broke out. The 1939 White Paper, the written directive, for all intents and purposes ended Jewish immigration and completed the British turnaround into full appeasement of the Arab world.

Following World War II, policymakers in Washington understood Britain’s dire financial position. Indeed, Prime Minister Churchill declared, “We are bankrupt.” This meant Britain could not alone withstand Soviet penetration into the region, exemplified by a Communist puppet regime that enjoyed a brief existence in northern Iran in 1946.

The authors ignore the fact that the Truman doctrine of 1947, and the American decision to give military and financial aid to Turkey and Greece in light of Britain’s refusal to help these countries, were milestones in America’s Middle East policy shift, as were its subsequent support for the UN’s partition plan for Palestine and its recognition of Israel.

MILES COPELAND WAS A skilled CIA operative. He operated in Syria and helped Colonel Husni al-Za’im to seize power there in 1949: He greatly assisted his fellow agent Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt in Egypt with the Nasserite revolution three years later. But his was a somewhat playful spirit, once writing that “we were not a lot of evil geniuses plotting to brainwash the world …on the contrary, we were innocent kids with new toys and a license to steal.” Roosevelt also masterminded Operation Ajax in 1953, the coup which unseated Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossaddegh, who had two years before nationalized British oil interests in Iran.

Roosevelt saw in the military leaders whom he helped seize power from the corrupt pro-British regimes throughout the Middle East the means of putting an end to British influence. But these leaders themselves turned hostile to the US: the authors attribute this to diplomatic errors made by secretary of state John Foster Dulles in trying to force them into anti-Communist alliances.

The book’s final chapter deals with recent history – and at its center, former US deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, architect of the 2003 Iraq war and “the intellectu-al godfather and fiercest advocate for toppling Saddam Hussein.”

Meyer and Brysac find much to criticize in American and British policy in the Middle East. British policy, based on indirect rule, paid dividends only in the short run. This model, employed originally by Cromer in Egypt, was extended to the mandates of Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, but met with limited success, at best. This approach was also very evident in Britain’s relations with Iran up until 1951.

Washington preferred intervention, open or furtive, to get rid of troublemaking leaders.

The regime changes that were orchestrated by the US ushered in a new crop of leaders, some of whom, however, excelled in nepotism, blackmail and torture.

The authors contend that America is today’s unofficial empire. Though not colonialist in orientation, it uses imperialist tools to fulfill its aims. Its armies, navies, air forces, bases, proxies, and local collaborators “are spread across the length and breadth of the planet.”

And while America always contends that its military campaigns, large and small, are for the common good, and in the end will bring democracy to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the authors beg to differ.

“Whether this expansionary drive has stemmed from economic, political, or moral considerations is a matter of worn dispute but undeniably, America is perceived as an imperial power in much of the world, among friends no less than foes.”

Authors Meyer and Brysac rely mostly on secondary sources for their material, and on memoirs written by both players and observers published over the years. It should be noted, however, that a plethora of books have been written about the characters and events of the period, providing much insight and analysis. For all that, Meyer and Brysac’s book gives a colorful portrayal of the main actors. Vividly described and written are their successes and failures, their preconceived notions and ideologies, and what drove them to spearhead and shape the policy of Britain – and later, America – in the region.

Dr. Shlomo Yotvat is affiliated with the Open University Ra’anana, and has written on Anglo-American conflicts in Palestine and the Middle East in the 20th century.


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