Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Syria, from Lawrence to Today's Conundrum

Before making up your mind about what to do about Syria, I urge everyone to read Lawrence In Arabia:War, Deceit, Imperial Folly And The Making Of The Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson, a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Bosnia, El Salvador, and "many other strife-torn countries." He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Harper's Magazine, and Outside and is the author or co-author of The Man Who Tried to Save the World, The Four O'Clock Murders, War Zone, and Inside the League. The title says it all.  Notice that this is a book about Lawrence IN Arabia, not OF Arabia, a recognition of his paradoxical--and ultimately untenable--role as champion of Arab nationalism and agent of Great Power imperialism. The subtitle is a capsule summary of the Great Power"s relationship with Syria and the entire Middle East over the past century. Perhaps a fitting epitaph to that relationship might be a quote from that great architect of "imperial folly," Rudyard Kipling: "A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East."

Now Lawrence Of Arabia is a spectacular and thought-provoking movie, and Peter O/Toole a masterful interpreter of the angst-ridden, and probably schizophrenic, Lawrence, but neither even begins to scratch the surface of what happened in that region during the Great War, let alone the disastrous consequences that still bedevil us today.  As Anderson convincingly asserts in the Introduction: "The modern Middle East was largely created by the British. It was they who carried the Allied war effort in the region during World War I and who, at its close, principally fashioned it peace. It was a peace presaged by the nickname given the region by covetous Allied leaders in wartime: "the Great Loot." As one of Britain's most important and influential agents in that arena, Lawrence was intimately connected to all, good and bad, that was to come." As for Lawrence himself, "this was an experience that left him utterly changed, unrecognizable in certain respects even to himself. Victory carries a moral burden the vanquished never know, and as an architect of momentous events, Lawrence would be uniquely haunted by what he saw and did during the Great Loot."

Missing from the picture are William Yale, "a fallen American aristocrat in his twenties who as the only American field intelligence in the Middle East during World War I, would strongly influence his nation's postwar policy in the region, even as he remained on the payroll of Standard Oil of New York," Curt Prufer, "a young German scholar who, donning the camouflage of Arab robes, would seek to to foment an Islamic jihad against the western colonial powers, and who would carry his "war by revolution" ideas into the Nazi era," and Aaron Aaronsohn, "a Jewish scientist who, under the cover of working for the Ottoman government, would establish a elaborate an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring and play a critical role in creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine."    

Along with Lawrence, they tended to be young, wholly untrained for the missions they were given, and largely unsupervised. who capitalized on their "extraordinary freedom of action," and "drew upon a very particular set of personality traits--cleverness, bravery, a talent for treachery--to both forge their own destiny and alter the course of history." While the senior generals and elder statesmen charted the battlefield campaigns and drew lines on the map it was they "who created the conditions on the ground that brought these campaigns to fruition, who made those postwar policies and boundaries possible." In a conflict that "literally involved millions of players," it was "the subterranean and complex game that these four men played, their hidden loyalties and personal duels, helped create the modern Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the world we live in today."     

Anderson presents a graphic narration of the war in the Middle East, with Lawrence, Yale, Aaronsohn, Prufer, the Arabs, the terrible Turks, the different Arab factions, the Brits and the French routinely lying, cheating, double-crossing, and betraying one another with wild abandon. The carnage there was on a somewhat smaller scale than it was in Europe, but it was just as brutal and senseless, and the outcome equally insane. On pp.481 to 483, he presents a cogent summary of what happened in November, 1918, when "the dam had burst."  The climax for Lawrence came when British General Allenby matter-of-factly informed him that all of his sacrifices on behalf of Arab nationalism had been for naught, because the Brits and the French (whom Lawrence mistrusted and despised) were going to divide up the entire region--and the spoils of The Great Loot, an especially the region's oil deposits--between themselves. Oil might not make the desert bloom, exactly, but it was certainly about to enrich the Great Powers, including the U.S., for their machinations. Lawrence, "had waged a quiet war against his own government and he had lost." Lawrence announced that he wanted no part of this betrayal, resigned his commission, and returned to England "to prepare for the next round in the struggle for Arab independence." He never returned to Syria again.  Of course,his counsel was totally ignored at the Paris Peace Conference, which Anderson characterizes as "a yearlong shadow play." William Yale, who was present at the conference, called it "the prologue of the 20th century tragedy." Aaronsohn lobbied hard for a Jewish state in Palestine, but was outmaneuvered by the Great Powers and by English Zionist Chaim Weismann, who lived to become the first the first president of the state of Israel. {In an incredibly bizarre twist, Prufer recruited Weismann's sister Minna into his pro-German spy ring.} Prufer returned to the chaos in the Fatherland, joined the Nazi Party, and became an SS officer and member of the German foreign ministry during World War II.

In his epilogue, Anderson presents a cogent summary of the poisoned fruits of the Peace Conference and the chaotic world they produced. Lawrence published several accounts of his time in Arabia in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the shorter mass-market Revolt in the Desert.       
And what of the United States in all of this? They were latecomers to the conflict itself, but a mighty presence in Paris. William Yale "placed much of the blame on his own government." He charged that the Peace Conference "seemed a rather perfect reflection of Woodrow Wilson's peculiar blend of idealism and arrogance" judging it "the hint of a simplistic mind-set." His grand vision of the new world "rested upon a bedrock of profound ignorance." His principle of "self determination" for all subject nations clashed fundamentally with the reality of Great Power imperialism and opened up "a Pandora's Box" of "wars of national liberation" that have been plaguing the world ever since. Anderson rests much of his agreement with Yale on Wilson's appointment of a Middle Eastern research section that completely ignored Lawrence, Yale, and anyone else with scintilla of knowledge of the region. It was chaired by a classics professor at the University of Wisconsin, and included "a specialist in Latin American studies, an American Indian historian, a scholar on the Crusades, and two Persian linguistics professors."

 Nor was Yale himself without blame. His top secret report to U.S. military intelligence in London, outlining the supposed collapse of morale among the Arab rebels fighting with the British was delivered on the eve of Lawrence's first strike against the enemy. "With that dispatch," Anderson proclaims, "he was establishing a tradition of fundamentally misreading the situation in the Middle East that his successors in the American intelligence community would rigorously maintain for the next ninety-five years."      

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