Avaricious Imperialists or Nation Builders? The Middle East, 100 Years On

Avaricious Imperialists or Nation Builders? The Middle East, 100 Years On

Middle East, Made and Unmade

“A Cen­tu­ry Ago, the Mod­ern Mid­dle East Was Born,” announced The New York Times in Decem­ber. A col­league asks: “Are you not struck by how dif­fi­cult (impos­si­ble?) it is to encap­su­late his­to­ry in an op-ed? Is that real­ly how and when the mod­ern Mid­dle East was born?”

Good ques­tions. The Times’s idea is that after World War I, avari­cious impe­ri­al­ists moved in to enslave Turkey’s for­mer slaves. This famil­iar theme will dom­i­nate through the cen­te­nary of the Cairo Con­fer­ence in March 2021. It’s been around at least since 2001, when Osama bin Laden referred to 9/11 as pay­back for what he then called “eighty years of injustice.”

Here­with some con­trar­i­an, revi­sion­ist and polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect thoughts. Among the World War I vic­tors, only France among the West­ern allies saw much worth hav­ing in the defeat­ed Ottoman Empire. Great Britain, by con­trast, saw lit­tle there for colony-grab­bing. One the­o­ry is that Britain want­ed Iraqi oil. But Britain had had an inde­pen­dent oil sup­ply since 1913. That was when the Admi­ral­ty, under Win­ston Churchill, pur­chased con­trol­ling inter­est in the Anglo-Per­sian Oil Com­pa­ny. (Churchill need­ed to sup­ply his new oil-fired Roy­al Navy, free from reliance on Stan­dard Oil or Roy­al Dutch Shell.)

In the Mid­dle East, Britain found her­self play­ing ref­er­ee between con­tentious fac­tions.  The sit­u­a­tion mil­i­tat­ed against a peace­ful out­come. Appro­pri­ate­ly, David Fromkin enti­tled his book on the sub­ject A Peace to End all Peace. Churchill at the time saw a Mid­dle East “stocked with pep­pery, pugna­cious, proud politi­cians and the­olo­gians, who hap­pen to be at the same time extreme­ly well armed and extreme­ly hard up.”

Sykes, Picot…and Sazonov

Middle East
Spheres of influ­ence grant­ed (imag­ined) by the almost still­born Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Agree­ment, 1916. Dark blue: French occu­pa­tion. Light blue: French pro­tec­torate. Red: British occu­pa­tion. Pink: British pro­tec­torate. Green: Russ­ian occu­pa­tion. Magen­ta: “inter­na­tion­al zones.” Grey: mod­ern bor­ders. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons, pub­lic domain)

Fre­quent­ly cit­ed in the stan­dard cri­tique of West­ern avarice is the Sykes-Picot Agree­ment of May 1916. This allo­cat­ed British con­trol of Pales­tine (includ­ing today’s Jor­dan and Israel), south­ern Iraq, and Mediter­ranean ports of Haifa and Acre. France would get south­east­ern Turkey, north­ern Iraq, Syr­ia and Lebanon. Along came Sergei Sazonov, Czar Nicholas II’s for­eign min­is­ter. Rus­sia, third mem­ber of the Triple Entente, demand­ed West­ern Arme­nia, Con­stan­tino­ple (now Istan­bul) and the Dar­d­anelles. The last two had already been promised to the Czar in a 1915 agree­ment.

Now all this sounds like—and was—power pol­i­tics of the worst sort. The Entente nego­tia­tors paid no atten­tion to the wish­es of native pop­u­laces. And “Sykes-Picot” (always omit­ting “Sazonov”) is still a ral­ly­ing cry for crit­ics of the West.

The prob­lem is that Sykes-Picot was pure wish­ful think­ing. It occurred when nobody knew who would win the war or dic­tate the peace. It was obso­lete almost from the moment of sign­ing. More­so when the Czar abdi­cat­ed in 1917, and Sovi­et Rus­sia left the war in March 1918.

* * *

Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd George believed Sykes-Picot was “a fatu­ous arrange­ment judged from any and every point of view.” It was inex­plic­a­ble, he wrote lat­er, “that a man of Sir Mark Sykes’s fine intel­li­gence should ever have append­ed his sig­na­ture.” Sykes him­self pre­ferred France “to clear out of the whole Arab region except the Lebanon.” He urged sooth­ing the Arabs by giv­ing them a Mediter­ranean port. The French refused to waive any of their “rights” in the region. Sykes also fer­vent­ly believed in Jew­ish-Arab friend­ship, and on that ground alone want­ed the Agree­ment to go away. The French remained adamant, and the British For­eign Office refused to con­sid­er the Arabs capa­ble of self-gov­ern­ment. (See Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, 344-45.)

Enter Churchill

David Stafford nev­er wrote a bad book. His Obliv­ion or Glo­ry: 1921 and the Mak­ing of Win­ston Churchill, sheds light on sub­se­quent events. (Review upcom­ing by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project). Churchill became Colo­nial Sec­re­tary in Feb­ru­ary 1921. Among his first chal­lenges was remak­ing the Mid­dle East. It was now five years since the Sykes-Picot Agree­ment. Britain, if not France, rec­og­nized the prin­ci­ple of self-deter­mi­na­tion. Dur­ing the Peace nego­ti­a­tions it was part of Pres­i­dent Wil­son‘s Four­teen Points. In Europe, new states were born in the Baltic and Balka­ns. Why not the Mid­dle East?

In March, Churchill con­vened a con­fer­ence in Cairo to cre­ate nations from the Ottoman corpse. His Pan-Ara­bist advi­sors, Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence, urged installing Arab Hashemite kings in Jor­dan and Iraq. Britain took on a League of Nations “Man­date” in the rest of Pales­tine (what is now Israel) with desul­to­ry guar­an­tees to main­tain an Arab major­i­ty there. France con­tin­ued to exert its claims for Syr­ia and Lebanon.

By sum­mer, Pales­tine arrange­ments threat­ened to fall apart. Chaim Weizmann’s Zion­ists demand­ed that Britain allow a Jew­ish major­i­ty in its Pales­tine Man­date. This, they said accu­rate­ly, had been promised in 1917 by the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion. Next came a del­e­ga­tion of Arab Chris­tians and Mus­lims, demand­ing repeal of the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion. Both sides resist­ed all offers of com­pro­mise. Churchill was by nature an opti­mist, but now he seemed to despair. Stafford writes:

He con­fessed to the Cab­i­net that the sit­u­a­tion in Pales­tine was caus­ing him “per­plex­i­ty and anx­i­ety. The whole coun­try is in fer­ment,” he lament­ed, “both Arabs and Jews are arm­ing, ready to spring at each other’s throats.’”He could bare­ly con­ceal his exas­per­a­tion with the Pales­tin­ian demands. “I do not think things are going to get bet­ter, but rather worse,” he told the Cabinet.”


The deals made at Cairo last­ed a remark­ably long time, giv­en its ram­shackle hodge­podge of com­pro­mis­es. The French pro­claimed republics in Lebanon and Syr­ia, but more or less ran those places until France fell in 1940. In 1946 the two became inde­pen­dent. That part of Pales­tine gov­erned by Abdul­lah, the British-installed king (Jor­dan), sur­vives to this day, with his descen­dant on the throne. The oth­er part became Israel in 1948, when Britain gave up its Man­date and Arabs reject­ed a UN plan of partition.

In Iraq, Churchill con­clud­ed that the only afford­able way to main­tain order was air pow­er. He advo­cat­ed drop­ping tear gas on recal­ci­trant tribes—and is for­ev­er blamed for wish­ing to gas them to death. But to do that the RAF need­ed King Faisal’s per­mis­sion, hard­ly nec­es­sary were he just a pup­pet. He’d been “elect­ed” by a 90% vote, though he was an out­sider. The British Iraq Man­date end­ed in 1932 by terms of the Anglo-Iraq Treaty. This allowed for British oil inter­ests which had grown more impor­tant than they were in 1921.

I remem­ber ask­ing Pro­fes­sor Fromkin, at a Churchill sem­i­nar, why the Cairo Con­fer­ence installed non-native kings in Jor­dan and Iraq. “Because,” he replied, “in 1921, that was what you did. With all the rival alle­giances, an out­side king with no his­to­ry on any side would tend to uni­fy the mul­ti­ple pop­u­la­tions.” Read: it seemed a good idea at the time.

* * *

Who then made the mod­ern Mid­dle East: avari­cious impe­ri­al­ists or ide­al­is­tic nation-builders? Some, but not all of the above. Read­ing deeply into the works of Fromkin and Stafford, one real­izes just how dif­fi­cult a job it was.

Churchill, for one, does not come off as an empire-builder. Frus­trat­ed, he tried to please all sides. In Sep­tem­ber 1922 he wrote Lloyd George: “We are pay­ing eight mil­lions a year for the priv­i­lege of liv­ing on an ungrate­ful vol­cano out of which we are in no cir­cum­stances to get any­thing worth having.”

Pri­mar­i­ly, Churchill seems to have thought of the job as a bur­den of the vic­tors, a vast pop­u­la­tion left rud­der­less by the First World War. If some of the deci­sions had been dif­fer­ent, would the out­come have been? Pos­si­bly. But hind­sight is cheap, and far too eas­i­ly indulged.

2 thoughts on “Avaricious Imperialists or Nation Builders? The Middle East, 100 Years On

  1. I described my com­ment as “revi­sion­ist” with a grin, Charles. It’s not real­ly revi­sion­ist. It’s just that the mak­ing of the mod­ern Mid­dle East can­not be ful­ly described as impe­ri­al­ist colony-grab­bing. As I wrote, that was part of it, at least for one country–the facts speak for them­selves. But there were forces tug­ging at all par­tic­i­pants, and more at stake than just the spoils of war.

  2. It is impor­tant that there are still peo­ple that can author­i­ta­tive­ly cor­rect and dis­abuse revi­sion­ist his­to­ry. The NYT assumed the role of revi­sion­ist his­to­ri­an with their 1619 series and this sort of dis­tort­ed analy­sis. Thank you, Richard.

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