As Barack Obama sets out on a trip to the Muslim Middle East tomorrow he will be visiting a region whose borders were carved up by the World War I victors with no thought given to ethnic, religious or historic concerns -- a nonsensical crazy quilt of national borders that resemble those today and continues to have global consequences.
It is likely that the Middle East still would be as big a mess as it is without the meddling of these nations, but at least the mess would have been self created and not foisted on the peoples of the region by imperialists who believed themselves and their cultures to be vastly superior.
That is the big takeaway from A Peace To End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin, a weighty tome published in 1989 now out in a 20th anniversary edition that predates but anticipates the inability of the Clinton administration to craft a coherent policy for the region and inadvertent efforts of the Bush administration to further destabilize the region through the Iraq war. Britain, France and Italy, of course, had seen the sun set on their own empires decades earlier, leaving it to the U.S. to determinedly learn nothing from the past, including the lessons of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, as the world's remaining superpower.
"These three all-powerful, all-ignorant men, sitting there and carving up continents," wrote a diplomat who observed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French President Georges Clemenceau at work at the 1919 conference. (President Vittorio Orlando's Italy got sloppy seconds.)
"A common sight . . . was one or other of the world's statesmen, standing before a map and muttering to himself: 'Where is that damn'd . . . ?' while he sought with extended forefinger for some or river that he had never heard of before," writes Fromkin. "Lloyd George, who kept demanding that Britain should rule Palestine from (in the Biblical phrase) from Dan to Beersheba, didn't know where Dan was."
It was not until a year after the armistice that one of Lloyd George's generals was able to report to him that Dan finally been located, but in order to fulfill the prime minister's mandate, a boundary would have to be moved -- and was.* * * * *With the onset of World War I, Britain had little interest in the Middle East, although it did negotiate the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement with France and the assent of Imperial Russia that defined their respective post-war spheres of influence.
But as a war that was supposed to be over in weeks (sound familiar?) dragged on, British thinking evolved: The anachronistic Ottoman Empire was to be attacked but preserved, and then carved up at war's end with the Brits getting the lion's share of the lands it did not already have, France be damned, to assure a strategically vital land bridge between its colonial centers in Egypt and India.
One of the beauties of A Peace To End All Peace is Fromkin's ability to unmask the ignorance and imperiousness of virtually every British diplomat, commander and journalist who bigfooted across the landscape of the post-World War I Middle East. (Less than pretty are the few and dreadfully inadequate maps that a book written in such detail demands.)
In another precursor of the crises that were to grow out of America's own ignorance and imperiousness after the regime of Saddam Hussein was toppled, the British were shocked -- just shocked -- when waves of demonstrations and strikes spread across Egypt in 1919 after the Residency, the British colonial authority, blew off demands for autonomy and exiled the leader of that movement rather than negotiate with him.
"The British authorities were taken by surprise. The cables sent from Cairo to London at the time suggest the Residency had little understanding of what was happening in Egypt . . . It was unaware of the implications of the profound social and economic changes brought about by the war: the new classes and ambitions that had emerged, the new interests, the new resentments, and the new sources of discord and disaffection.
Then there was the meddlesome but influential Gertrude Bell, an anthropologist and sometimes spy who was the best known British writer concerning Arab countries, but a certifiable ignoramus regarding the very subject about which she was supposed to know so much.
In yet another precursor of the disastrous American occupation of Iraq, Bell took it upon herself to develop a unified plan for the region, then called Mesopotamia, which was nominally under British control and would remain so after its "independence" in 1921 when Feisal, the son of Hussein of Mecca and good friend of the influential T.E. Lawrence, was bribed into agreeing to be enthroned as the king of Iraq through the fiction that he had been freely and spontaneously chosen by his accidental subjects.
"She was cautioned by an American missionary that she was ignoring rooted historical realities in doing so. 'You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity! Assyria always looked to the west and east and north, and Babylonia to the south. They never have been an independent unit. You've got to take time to get them integrated, it must be done gradually. They have no conception of nationhood yet.' "
In still another Bush era precursor, Bell and others did not understand why the nearly two million Shiite Muslims in Mesopotamia would not accept the domination by the minority Sunni Muslims advocated by London because they failed to grasp the most elemental fact about the region: Faith and tribe came before any sense of national sovereignty.
In addition to Egypt and Iraq, there were similar violent outbursts of discontent in Iran and Afghanistan, but so feckless were the Brits that they believed a vast conspiracy, probably with Zionist roots and pushed by the Bolsheviks, was at work.
In fact there was an outside force linked to ever one of the outbreaks of violence in the Middle East, but it was the one force whose presence remained invisible to British officialdom. It was Britain herself. In a region of the globe whose inhabitants were known especially to dislike foreigners, and in a predominantly Moslem world which could abide being ruled by almost anybody except non-Moslems, a foreign Christian country ought to have expected to encounter hostility when it attempted to impose its own rule. The shadows that accompanied the British rulers wherever they went were in fact their own."* * * * *Woodrow Wilson does not fare well in A Peace To End All Peace, and there surely has been no American president whose idealism was so undermined by stubbornness.
When German attacks eventually propelled the U.S. into the war in 1917, Wilson's personal beliefs in self-determination as articulated in his Fourteen Points led him to support independence for Middle Eastern peoples, but the British played him for a fool, using ambiguous language in declaration after declaration in which they seemed to agree with him while actually intending to maintain an iron grip on the territories they had obtained or conquered before, during and after the war.
Such dishonesty was de rigeur, and it is fair to say that with the exception of the hapless U.S., nothing that Britain, France and Italy agreed upon in the post-war years was for the stated reasons, while the backstabbing between Whitehall and the Quay d'Orsay was ferocious.
Wilson's idealism, so admired by the peoples of Europe if not their governments, gave way to pathos.
He suffered a debilitating stroke in late 1919 after campaigning ceaselessly for the League of Nations and his second wife, Edith, served as his steward until the end of his presency. His lofty programs, including ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and adherence to the League of Nations, went down to defeat as he and his wife committed one political blunder after another.* * * * *Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks set about breaking their promises to allow non-Russian peoples to secede from their rule and crushed them one by one, restoring the borders of the old Imperial empire and snuffing out Ottoman-influenced outliers. This process was pretty much completed by 1922 when the Bolshevik Russians attacked and slaughtered the Constantinople-led regime in the ancient kingdom of Bukhara, having earlier burned a library that contained possibly the greatest collection of Moslem manuscripts in the world.
Britain was only slightly less duplicitous when it came to the creation of a Jewish protectorate in Palestine that would become the nation of Israel, which of course has long been a flash point for conflict in the region.
The Brits adopted the Zionist cause for moral as well as political reasons, as is evident from the Balfour Declaration of 1917 endorsing a Jewish state, and for a brief if not shining moment it appeared that an alliance between Zionism and Arab nationalism was possible.
It was, of course, not to be as the Brits, despite the good-faith gestures of then-Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothchild and other British and world Jews of import, squeezed the amount of land available to migrating Jews to a fraction of what had been committed and the Arabs set about making them feel unwelcome through anti-Zionist riots that began in 1921 and continued intermittently for years.
The last British leader of consequence to put his stamp on the Middle East was Winston Churchill.
Rehabilitated after the Dardanelles and Gallipoli disasters in 1915 and 1916 (for both of which he was unfairly blamed), he reentered government in 1921 as Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air.
Churchill understood that Britain, which was in the midst of a deep post-war depression, had come to the Middle East to stay but had neither the soldiers nor the resources to hold onto its interests -- which now included the region's vast oil reserves -- and devised an aircraft-and-armored-car strategy designed to hold local opposition at bay.
"During and after the First World War, Britain and her Allies destroyed the old order in the region irrevocably . . . To take its place they created countries, nominated rules, delineated frontiers; and introduced a state system of the sort that exists everywhere else; but they did not quell all significant local opposition to those decisions.
"As a result of the events of 1914-22, while bringing to an end Europe's Middle Eastern Question, gave birth to a Middle Eastern Question in the Middle East itself."
Fast forward 85 years to the first successful U.S. effort to turn back the Al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq. Thomas Ricks describes an officer's encounter with a Sunni sheik in the Anbar desert in The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq:
"Sheik, why do you smuggle sheep and benzine in from Syria?" the officer asked.
"Why did you put the Syrian border in the middle of my sheep?" the sheik responded. "We were here first."
PHOTOGRAPHS (Top to bottom): Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Bell, Feisal, Balfour, Rothchild, Churchill.