[Marxism] How the British colonialists tried to run the Middle East

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 6 10:33:30 MDT 2008

The Road Already Taken
How the British colonialists tried to run the Middle East.

Reviewed by James Reston Jr.
Sunday, July 6, 2008; BW09


The Invention of the Modern Middle East
By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac
Norton. 507 pp. $27.95

The importance of Kingmakers for a wide American audience emerges 
slowly. At first, the book appears to be a quaint reminiscence of 
eccentric and often familiar British colonials of the early 20th 
century, strutting across Middle Eastern deserts in pith helmets, 
instructing the benighted native tribesmen about the fundamentals of 
governing. But as this beautifully written and researched book 
proceeds, it becomes abundantly clear that these skilled English 
soldier-diplomats are the progenitors of (and in some cases, role 
models for) the current crop of American diplomats and soldiers on 
the same turf. The issues that this country is now debating -- how to 
exit Iraq gracefully, how to protect American interests in the region 
after withdrawal, how to keep Arab insurgencies in check, how to 
continue the essential flow of oil, how to maintain American presence 
without the appearance of colonialism or occupation -- these issues 
have all been addressed before.

The authors make the relevance of their study clear at the outset. 
"History never repeats, but attitudes and arguments, dilemmas and 
excuses, clichés and delusions recur with the inevitability of a sun 
setting on successive empires." They refer to their work as 
"forgotten history." But it is history that is well-chronicled, and 
the authors draw copiously on the scholarship that has come before theirs.

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have organized their book into 
a gallery of colorful figures who played significant roles in the 
shaping of the Middle East in the wake of World War I. Some of these 
fascinating figures are well-known: T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, 
Gen. Charles George Gordon and Field Marshall H.H. Kitchener, Prime 
Ministers William Gladstone and David Lloyd George. But more weight 
and space are given to figures who are less famous: Sir Mark Sykes, 
Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson and "Jack" Philby, the fascinating father of 
the master spy Kim Philby. These were the key players in such pivotal 
events as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the Balfour Declaration 
of 1917 and the Cairo Conference of 1921, events that set a course 
toward a Jewish homeland in Palestine and drew the lines of Iraq by 
joining the Mesopotamian provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul into 
an amorphous country. How Persia was carved up between British and 
Russian interests in the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907, how the 
countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon were created, is also covered. 
Just how arbitrary these boundary lines were, and how blatantly 
driven by English and French self-interest, is abundantly clear.

Perhaps more important than these extravagant personalities and the 
events they shaped are the principles that guided their "New 
Imperialism," most significant the idea of indirect rule, a doctrine 
that evolved from the experience of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa and 
Lord Lugard in central Africa, and was promoted by the London Times 
colonial editor, Flora Shaw, who was also Lugard's wife. In this 
doctrine, the British Empire sought to control a vast region of 
disparate, warring tribes by appointing and then "advising" Arab 
leaders and kings. This policy of "rent a sheik, buy an emir" was a 
mixed success at best, as the troubled experience with King Faisal of 
Iraq and King Saud of Saudi Arabia shows. The colonials faced a 
succession of Arab revolts and insurgencies in which their clients 
seemed to switch sides at will.

But indirect rule possesses an inherent contradiction, as Meyer and 
Brysac point out. "Though New Imperialism was justified as an agent 
of modernization, the British perpetuated existing hierarchies 
resistant to fundamental change. Moreover, since sultans and emirs 
owed their offices to foreigners and infidels, they forfeited their 
legitimacy, too often becoming demoralized or dissolute." How apt to 
the current American circumstance. If indeed the United States is 
going to establish some 50 permanent bases in Iraq and remain in that 
country for the next 100 years, the agents of American indirect rule 
might keep this warning in mind.

The book completes its gallery with portraits of three American, 
would-be kingmakers: CIA agents Kermit Roosevelt (who was behind the 
overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq) and Miles 
Copeland (who skulked throughout the Middle East), and former deputy 
secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz (a chief architect of the plan to 
invade Iraq). In contrast to the subtle British colonials who engaged 
with Arab culture down to its tribal roots, the Middle East of these 
American operatives seems to be merely an exotic playground where the 
prime instrument for regime change or control is bags of cash. 
Copeland's own words speak volumes: "We were innocent kids with new 
toys -- and a license to steal."

This is the least successful section of the book. But the paucity of 
good American subjects may be due to the fact that the American 
colonial era in the Middle East is only now beginning in earnest. 
American attention will shortly shift to the vocabulary of indirect 
control, of American proconsuls and high commissioners, zones of 
influence, mandate principles, protectorates and client states. This 
fine book lays an excellent foundation for thinking about the thorny 
next phase. ·

James Reston Jr.'s new work of history, "The Gates of Vienna: 
Suleiman the Magnificent and Islam's Near Supremacy in Europe," will 
be published next year.

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