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
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.
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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.)
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.
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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.