European Meddling

23 January 2004

Review and Excerpts from
A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin
book review by Craig J. Cantoni

An outstanding book on the Middle East is A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin. A nonpartisan work of pure scholarship written before the current Iraq war, it gives the history of European meddling in the Middle East during World War I and the few years following the war after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It should be read by all Americans, as it puts the Iraq war and the Palestinian issue in historical context.

Both sides of the political spectrum will find something to dislike in the book, thus attesting to its evenhandedness. Left-liberals will be offended because it is not politically correct and does not gloss over the religious fanaticism and tribal hatreds of Moslems in the region. Neocons will be offended because it reveals the past folly of nation-building in the region by the West, especially by imperialist France and Britain. And Zionists will be offended because it details the sordid beginnings of the Jewish state, including the influence of Jewish Bolsheviks and socialists.

The book leaves the reader with three disturbing conclusions: one, that Moslem enmity toward the West is understandable given the history of European imperialism in the Middle East, especially by the British; two, that the parallels between today and the early twentieth century are striking; and three, that it may have been a huge foreign policy blunder for the United States to follow in the clumsy footsteps of Britain and France in the region after the Second World War, thus redirecting Moslem enmity from Europe toward America.

Excerpts are below. Headings in bold are mine.

The Difficulties Encountered in 1918 by British Civil Commissioner Arnold Wilson in Creating a Country out of Mesopotamia (Modern-day Iraq):

While he was prepared to administer the provinces of Basra and Baghdad, and also the province of Mousul (which, with Clemenceau’s consent, Lloyd George had detached from the French sphere and intended to withhold from Turkey), he did not believe that they formed a coherent entity. Iraq (an Arab term that the British used increasingly to denote the Mesopotamian lands) seemed to him too splintered for that to be possible. Mousul’s strategic importance made it seem a necessary addition to Iraq, and the strong probability that it contained valuable oilfields made it a desirable one, but it was part of what was supposed to have been Kurdistan; and Arnold Wilson argued that the warlike Kurds who had been brought under his administration ”numbering half a million will never accept an Arab ruler.”

A fundamental problem, as Wilson saw it, was that the almost two million Shi’ite Moslems in Mesopotamia would not accept domination by the minority Sunni Moslem community, yet ”no form of Government has yet been envisaged, which does not involve Sunni domination.”

Gertrude Bell, working on her own plans for a unified Iraq, 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.”

The Times (of London) on Iraq:

In a leading article on 7 August 1920, The Times demanded to know ”how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which, they never asked for and do not want?” In a similar article on 10 August, The Times said that ”We are spending sums in Mesopotamia and in Persia which may reach a hundred million pounds this year” in support of what it termed ”the foolish policy of the Government in the Middle East.”

Britain’s Quelling of Tribal Revolt in Iraq

The main population centers quickly were secured, but regaining control of the countryside took time. It was not until October that many of the cut-off Euphrates towns were relieved and not until February of 1921 that order was restored more or less completely. Before putting down the revolt Britain suffered nearly 2,000 casualties, including 450 dead.

When the uprisings in the Middle East after the war occurred, it was natural for British officials to explain that they formed part of a sinister design woven by the long-time conspirators.

In fact, there was an outside force linked to every 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 predominately 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 in the Middle East were in fact their own.

The House of Saud

Yet the First World War was barely over before the Cabinet in London was forced to recognize that its policy in Arabia was in disarray. Its allies—Hussein, King of the Jejaz, and Ibn Saud, Lord of Nejd—were daggers drawn.

Ibn Saud was the hereditary champion of the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, an eighteenth-century religious leader whose alliance with the House of Saud in 1745 had been strengthened by frequent intermarriage between the two families. The Wahhabis (as their opponents called them) were severely puritanical reformers who were seen by their adversaries as fanatics.

It was the spread of this uncompromising puritanical faith into neighboring Hejaz that, in Hussein’s view, threatened to undermine his authority. Hussein was an orthodox Sunni; to him the Wahhabis were doctrinal and political enemies.

A Statement by the Military Governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, about Non-Jews Inevitably Taking a Lower Place in Jerusalem as Jews Took Over:

”It will take months, possibly years, of patient work to show the Jews that we are not run by the Arabs, and the Arabs that we are not bought by the Jews….it is one thing to see clearly enough the probable future of this country, and another thing to fail to make allowances for the position of the weaker and probably disappearing element. The results of the changes will be more satisfactory and more lasting if they are brought about gradually with patience, and without violent expressions of ill-will, leaving behind them an abiding rancor.”

Winston Churchill on Arab Fears of Jewish Immigrants after Becoming Colonial Secretary in 1921:

Churchill further attempted to allay Arab suspicions by demonstrating that their economic fears were groundless. Jewish immigrants, he argued repeatedly, would not seize Arab jobs or Arab land. On the contrary, he said, Jewish immigrants would create new jobs and new wealth that would benefit the whole community.

Churchill’s Frustrations in Negotiating with Arabs:

Dealing with Middle Easterners such as these was far more frustrating than had been imagined in wartime London when the prospect of administering the postwar Middle East was first raised. In Churchill’s eyes, the members of the Arab delegation were not doing what politicians are supposed to do: they were not aiming to reach an agreement—any agreement. Apparently unwilling to offer even 1 percent in order to get 99 percent, they offered no incentive to the other side to make concessions.

A Churchill Statement in 1922 about a Jewish Plan to Build Hydroelectric Generating Dams in the Auja and Jordan River Valleys:

”I am told that the Arabs would have done it for themselves. Who is going to believe that? Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine. They would have been quite content to dwell—a handful of philosophic people—in the wasted sun-scorched plains, letting the waters of the Jordan continue to flow unbridled and unharnessed into the Dead Sea.”

Winston Churchill’s June 13, 1920 Letter to Lloyd George about Palestine:

”Palestine is costing us 6 millions a year to hold. The Zionist movement will cause continued friction with the Arabs. The French … are opposed to the Zionist movement & will try to cushion the Arabs off on us as the real enemy. The Palestine venture … will never yield any profit of a material kind.”

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Mr. Cantoni is an author and columnist. He can be reached at

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