A Peace to End All Peace
Syrian and Israeli troops occupy Lebanese territory. Israel claims the entire west bank of the Jordan River. Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Greece and Turkey, eye each other suspiciously. Muslim states in the Soviet Union agitate for independence, as do the Kurds in Iraq and Iran. Soviet and Western-backed troops fight for control of Afghanistan. Anyone seeking to understand these issues that fill the front pages of today’s newspapers should read A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East 1914-1922 (chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989), for it describes the settlement of 1922 that led to the current conflicts in the Middle East.
Most of the book focuses on British activity in the region during and after World War I, and David Fromkin rightly links those twentieth century developments to the “Great Game” of the 1800’s, in which England sought to safeguard India, the jewel in its imperial crown, by controlling land and sea routes to the Asian subcontinent. England’s chief opponents in this game were Russia and France, its major ally the moribund Ottoman Empire. Although in Europe in World War I these roles were reversed, in the Middle East the situation was more ambiguous, as England continued its efforts to maintain the hegemony in the region. The settlement that followed the war would please no one. England’s allies felt cheated of plunder; native populations believed that their legitimate aspirations had been thwarted; all thought, rightly, that promises had been broken.
In large part dissatisfaction was inevitable because England made too many promises, so many that even its own officials—and certainly its allies—were confused about the government’s policy. A key example is the Sykes- Picot agreement concluded between England and France in 1916. As early as 1915 England regarded its Russian “ally” as a threat in the Middle East and sought to create a buffer by conceding Lebanon and Syria to France. In return, France agreed to give Britain a free hand in dealing with Hussein ibn Ah, Emir of Mecca. France believed that it was getting all of Syria and part of Iraq. Sir Mark Sykes thought that France would receive only a small part of Syria, the rest of which would be ruled by Hussein as a British client. Gilbert Clayton, head of British Intelligence in Cairo, objected to the agreement as giving too much to France and the Arabs. Sykes thought he was dividing the area as Clayton wished; Clayton believed that Sykes intentionally had undermined his position.
Another illustration of confusion was the Balfour Declaration. Fromkin claims that a mistaken premise of the British government was that the Jews controlled Islamic Turkey, as it later believed in a grand German-Turkish-Bolshevik-Islamic-Jewish conspiracy to seize the Middle East, perhaps the world. If Britain could gain Jewish support for its side, surely the Allies would win the war, so in 1917 it endorsed the Zionist position. Or did it? Having promised to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, England then created an Arab state east of the Jordan River; this new country contained three-quarters of the original Palestine. Throughout the postwar period the British army and bureaucracy remained more sympathetic to Arab than Jewish claims to the rest of the territory.
The Middle Eastern map that emerged in the aftermath of World War I did in many respects resemble what Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot had envisioned in 1916, but chance far more than foresight was responsible for that outcome. Fromkin’s is a tale of accidental judgments and casual slaughters, of purposes mistook fallen on the inventors’ heads. This description fits the whole of World War I as well as it does Hamlet (c. 1600-1601); it is particularly apt for developments in the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire was weak, though it proved more resilient than anyone anticipated, defeating the British invasion of 1915 and driving out the Greeks...
(The entire section is 1,585 words.)