During the six years a film and a book have become more or less required viewing and reading in the Washington national security establishment: The Battle of Algiers and David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace, on Britain and the Middle East during and after the First World War. I have long been familiar with the former and have just been reviewing large portions of the latter. Once again I have two reactions. Both are, indeed, highly relevant to the enterprise upon which our government has embarked in the Middle East—its political transformation—yet I cannot see how any rational reader could draw any encouraging lessons from either of them.
The Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Arab world for many centuries, moving, as empires so often do, from periods of glory to centuries of decadence. By the 1900s a new political movement, the Young Turks, was trying to modernize it along European lines. But in 1914 the Young Turks made a fateful, terrible mistake: they entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The European powers, then at the height of imperial expansion, had long dreamed of partitioning their vast domains, and the Allies now had a legal excuse to make specific plans to do so. The British both made agreements parceling out Ottoman territory among the French, Italians, Russians and themselves, but also enlisted subject Arab populations (which as we will see were much, much smaller than they are now) to fight their oppressors. And to cap it all off, the British in 1917 issued the Balfour Declaration endorsing the formation of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, largely in order to outbid the Germans in a battle for the support of Russian and American Jews. Under Lloyd George, who led the country to victory, the Middle East became the focus of British war aims, the bounty he could secure in return for the gigantic sacrifices (including the lives of 700,000 soldiers) that the British Empire had made. Unfortunately for him, however, the area had very little of the strategic or economic significance that it has now acquired, and the British people were far more interested in demobilizing their huge armies than in keeping them in these new and distant lands.
One by one, the British discovered their hopes falsified by reality. Their principal Arab allies were Hussein Sharif of Mecca and his sons, Faisal and Abdullah. The initially attempted to install Faisal as the leader of Syria—a vaguely defined territory that also included Lebanon—but eventually had to yield that region to the French and transplant Faisal to newly created Iraq, where he became King, instead. After the British split Palestine at the Jordan River and created Transjordan (an almost unpopulated territory) to its east, Abdullah became that country’s King. The Zionist project immediately encountered the violent resentment of the local Arabs, with whom most British officers on the scene tended to sympathize. In Turkey proper Lloyd George sponsored Greek inroads into the Greek-inhabited enclave around Smyrna, while also trying to create an independent Armenia for the Armenians who had survived the wartime genocide. Everything went wrong in Turkey when Mustafa Kemal, later Kemal Ataturk, managed to create a new nationalist movement that secured control of Anatolia and eventually routed the Greeks and drove the western powers away from Constantinople in 1922. That also led to the fall of the Lloyd George government. Meanwhile, in Arabia, Hussein of Mecca was destined to succumb to an alliance between Wahabi Islam and the House of Saud.
Fromkin does not explain exactly how the Ottomans had managed to govern these farflung regions relatively effectively, but he makes clear that the collapse of Ottoman authority, like the collapse of Ba’athist authority in Iraq in 2003, led immediately to anarchy in much of the region. Conflicts between Greeks and Turks, Muslims and Christians, and among various tribes sprang up in Anatolia, Iraq, Syria and Transjordan, while the British scrambled to find anyone who could govern effectively on their behalf. Egypt, too—which the British had occupied in 1882 and annexed in 1914—was stirring, and the British had to grant a sham independence a few years after the war. (Not for thirty years more did Egyptian Army officers led by Nasser turn the sham independence into the real thing.) Iraq exploded into a bloody revolt in 1920, and there, too, even the British client Faisal was unwilling to grant the British too much control over their affairs. Many British officials tried to blame their problems on Bolshevik, German, or even Jewish outside agitators—Fromkin mentions that British intelligence was still viewing the expanding Bolshevik regime as a German-Jewish conspiracy—but local resistance was almost always the real problem. Led by Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War and Air, the British also introduced a military innovation, the control of far-flung rural populations through air power. Two-seated biplanes in which the co-pilot wielded a machine gun could wreak havoc in a native village, and became the magic weapon with which the British hoped to keep both Iraq and their Afghan frontier under control. But meanwhile, the political upheavals in the region led, then as now, to massive movements of people. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Turks, for instance, were exchanged to settle the conflict between those two nations—and now, millions of Iraqis have fled to Syria and Jordan while millions of others have been driven into new homes within Iraq.
It seems further confirmation of Strauss and Howe that, eighty years later, the Brits’ American legatees as the world’s leading power also decided that the Middle East needed new governments. With characteristic American idealism, we began by arguing that we were simply spreading democracy, but in practice we have been searching vainly—even more vainly than the British—for a new set of reliable clients. Despite several rounds of Iraqi elections, the Maliki government’s entire dependence on the U.S. and its almost complete lack of real authority outside the Green Zone became apparent once again last week. Having settled on Mahmoud Abbas as our Palestinian client, the US has had to reject the verdict of Palestinian elections and try to pretend (as the British frequently did too) that the more independent and more popular Hamas movement does not exist. Rather than blame the Bolsheviks, against whom Churchill would have supported a preventive war, we now blame the Iranians (to be sure, with somewhat more justification) for our problems, and threaten to take exactly that step. (General Petraeus’s testimony this week may indicate whether it is indeed around the corner, as a British newspaper reports.) But it is fair to say that, more than six years after invading Afghanistan and five years into Iraq, we have made far less progress than the British had by 1922. The reasons are not far to seek.
The map of the Middle East remains roughly the same as the one that emerged then, but the human map does not. Iraq was estimated to have 3 million people by 1930; it has about 25 million today. In the same period Jordan has gone from Palestine west of the Jordan had 900,000 inhabitants then, and Transjordan had 300,000; today the same figures are 11 million (7 million Israelis and 4 million Palestinians) and 5 million. Syria and Lebanon have increased from about 2 and 1 million, respectively in 1930 to 20 million and 4 million today. Afghanistan had 7 million people then; it has 27 million today. Summing up, the area which Britain was struggling to control (which did not include Afghanistan) had a population of about 7 million in 1930 Britain itself had 45 million people in 1930, making it about six times larger in population than the area which we are discussing. These areas, plus Afghanistan, have about 90 million people today while the United States has about 300 million, making it a little more than three times larger. (I have not been discussing Iran, which has increased from 9 million people to 70 million.)
The peoples of this region, moreover, have become richer by far thanks to oil (even if the mass of the people have relatively little access to wealth), and their political consciousness is more highly developed. The United States and Israel have been less successful than the British in finding reliable allies or clients. They, too, are relying largely on air power in contested regions like Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraq, but air power usually kills more innocent people than guilty ones in urban areas, and it has not given the Israelis any lasting successes. American and Israeli soldiers seem to be less vulnerable than British ones were in those days, thanks to armored vehicles and body armor, but they have not been significantly more successful in establishing a lasting peace in areas they have occupied.
The British, as I mentioned, became involved in the Middle East in an effort to secure gains from the First World War, never sold their public on the wisdom of this step, and found it relatively easy to disengage, first in the early 1920s and then, more thoroughly, from 1945-56 (with the single disastrous exception of Suez.) Our government on the other hand took advantage of one spectacular terrorist act perpetrated by about 20 people to convince the American people that almost any effort in the region was justified and necessary. So frightened is the Democratic Party that its apparently impending triumph could be threatened by the perception that it is soft on national security that we, in total contrast to the British, have had no real debate over the wisdom of what we are trying to do. (The argument over Iraq is more about means than ends.) One side benefit of our rapidly deteriorating economy may be to force us to rethink the scale of our foreign adventures. I do not believe in any case that they can lead to anything but a further deterioration of our position in the Middle East and in the world.