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An Apparently Widely Unread Book

How things change. In 1989, when David Fromkin published A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Henry Holt), I couldn't have been less interested. I dimly recall the title, but I never handled the book or heard of anybody reading it. So I'd probably have gone on obliviously if it hadn't been for Amazon's practice of bundling related books. You don't save anything by buying these bundles (Amazon's prices are already fairly discounted), but you do make discoveries. As it happened, I recently wanted to buy a friend a paperback copy of Margaret Macmillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, and there it was, Mr Fromkin's book, as a suggested companion purchase, and I couldn't have been more interested. I bought the bundle at once.

It won't do any good, but I'll declare at the outset that this book is required reading for all Americans. That's the bullying sort of remark that I try never to make, but my sense of avertable tragedy has overwhelmed my manners. It is impossible to read End All Peace without being conscious, on almost every page, of the folly of the American misadventure in Iraq; it is also impossible not to hope that, if more people knew that the modern Middle East was fashioned in another, kindred folly of good intentions and fond conceit, then the misadventure might more quickly be brought to a close. Finally, there is the Cassandra touch, of having learned from a book that it might have been read before it was too late.

A Peace to End All Peace appeared, as I say, in 1989, before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Lebanon and Afghanistan were at war, but the first attack on the World Trade Center lay in the future, and the impending dissolution of the Soviet Empire had everybody's attention. Fatefully, the Cold War, which in retrospect provided the gravity that kept global stability in place, was about to come to an end, with sorrowful consequences for many people - Bosnians, certainly - and a a reassessment of alliances all round. Yet much that has happened since 1989 could have been foretold by the assiduous reader of this book.

I have only one complaint to make, and that is about the subtitle, which ought to have read, The British Undoing of the Ottoman Empire.  Mr Fromkin writes in his introduction,

As you will see when you read the book, Middle Eastern personalities, circumstances and political cultures do not figure a great deal in the narrative that follows, except when I suggest the outlines and dimensions of what European politicians were ignoring when they made their decisions.

It would have more accurate to substitute "British" for European here. End All Peace is overwhelming concerned with British politicians, civil servants, military officers, and journalists. From it one might construct the beginnings of a catalogue raisonnée of that key diplomatic documents, from treaties to diary entries, that between 1914 and 1922 shaped a Middle Eastern order out of the dust of the Ottoman Empire, and most of these were British. The narrative is propelled by an inner tension that Mr Fromkin says he only discovered in the course of writing it. First, there was the story that he always meant to tell. This story centered on Sir Mark Sykes, a wealthy baronet and amateur diplomat who championed the arrangement that was eventually put into place in 1922, four years after Sykes's death of influenza. By itself, this story would be a straightforward account of the thinking behind the line-drawing and power-sharing that disposed of the non-Turkish regions of the Ottoman Empire. The second story was implicit, and I daresay had to be teased out by Mr Fromkin. The second story was about growing British resistance to the first story. Mr Fromkin's conclusion appears near the end, and the italics are his.

It was no wonder, then, that in the years to come British officials were to govern the Middle East with no great sense of direction or conviction. It was a consequence of a peculiarity of the settlement of 1922: having destroyed the old order in the region, and having deployed troops, armored cars, and military aircraft everywhere from Egypt to Iraq, British policy-makers imposed a settlement upon the Middle East in 1922 in which, for the most part, they themselves no longer believed.

We tend to think of World War I as a morass of trenches and corpse-ridden no-man's-land. It was certainly that, but on the other side of Europe there was another war, in which the Entente powers fought the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Where the Western Front was a stalemate, however, the Middle Eastern front was a veritable pinball game of hits and misses, contingencies that could easily have worked out otherwise. To begin with, the Turks courted an English alliance in 1911 but was rebuffed. Thereafter, it sought a German alliance, but again without success - until the very eve of war, 2 August 1914. Two days later, Britain seized the two dreadnoughts that had been built for and paid for by Turkey; presently, two German warships that had skirted British naval incompetence in the Mediterranean would be "refitted" as Turkish ships, "purchased" to take the place of the dreadnoughts. No one was clearly informed of anyone's acts or motivations, and misinterpretation abounded on all sides. It is only by snaking through the feints and bluffs, however, that one gets from the outbreak of war to the creation of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq - all fashioned from the Ottoman Empire, and fashioned according to commitments made during the war for reasons that had in many cases vanished by the war's end. To give but one example, part of the motivation behind the Balfour Declaration - the statement of British sympathy with the "idea" of a Jewish homeland - was a hope that Russian Jews would be galvanized into continuing the war, although by November 1917, when Balfour addressed his celebrated letter to Lord Rothschild, it was already too late for that. Almost without exception, British military men stationed in the Middle East, moreover, were both sympathetic to Arabs (whom they did not, however, believe capable of self-government) and hostile to Zionists. Nor did the document have the support of all of Britain's leading Jews. The British were prepared to muddle through somehow, but their every gesture seems to have made peace in the Middle East an ever more distant prospect.

It would be hard to say that Mr Fromkin is sympathetic to the British statesmen and officers who, while usually meaning well, suffered terribly blinkered vision. The only clear-sighted man in the bunch was Churchill, but his impatient swagger simply fueled passive aggression all round, with the result that it was Churchill who was blamed for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, even though it never would have occurred if his directives had been executed by the Navy. Indeed, Churchill was the only Englishman with any real fighting courage. Even Kitchener, the hero of Khartoum and head of the war effort, was a worrier who could not directly relate to the Cabinet, but could only communicate through underlings. The most serious British blunder, repeated again and again, was the assumption that Arabs would rather be ruled by fair and honest Britain than by corrupt and inert Turks. Nor did the British recognize, in Mustafa Kemal, a Westernizer who would transform Turkey itself. Indeed, that oversight may be forgiven; Kemal, better know now as Atatürk, was the only one of the charismatic nationalists to emerge from World War I who would leave his people better off than he found them. It is lucky that Kemal took Churchill's bluff seriously in 1922, and backed down from the imminence of a new war, over the occupation of Istanbul. But the crisis brought Lloyd George's coalition to an end, and, unlike Churchill, Lloyd George would never taste power again.

The parade of arrogant cluelessness on parade in this book is enormously distressing, because even though the War was over long ago, its legacy persists.

Some of [today's] disputes, like those elsewhere in the world, are about rulers or frontiers, but what is typical of the Middle East is that more fundamental claims are also advanced, drawing into question not merely the dimensions anbd the boundaries, but the right to exist, of countries that immediately or eventually emerged from the British and French decisions of the early 1920s: Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. So at this point in the twentieth century, the Middle East is the region of the world in which wars of national survival are still being fought with some frequency.

If nothing else, Mr Fromkin's book will help readers make sense of Arab "insurgency," and perhaps even explain the urgency of removing our troops from a menace that their presence in the Middle East will only intensify. But how foolish I feel, exhorting visitors to pick up a book that's more than fifteen years old.


Fascinating. Definitely on my list now. However, did you make the type of arithmetical error that I make all too frequently? (I.e., how is a book from 1989 over a quarter of a century old?)

Lord, you are so right. And I'm about to go to my 25th law school reunion (ND '80)!

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