Wayne O’Leary

Cautionary Tale for Our Times

To those of a certain generation, myself included, the greatest motion picture ever made was without question the David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia, winner of seven academy awards in 1962. Its stunning mix of cinematography, music, and brilliant acting indelibly imprinted an image of the Middle East and the man whose heroics shaped it that has never left our mind’s eye.

Now comes a book on the same subject destined to have as large an impact on the reading public as the film did on moviegoers. Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Random House, 2013) fills in the gaps and adds rich detail and analysis to the story. Recently released in paperback by Anchor Books (2014), Anderson’s treatise not only sets history straight, but goes a long way toward explaining why we’ve arrived at our current pass in that part of the world.

Anderson, brother of the esteemed journalist Jon Lee Anderson, whose reportage on Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s laid bare the Bush administration’s duplicitous war policies, employs a similar style of character-driven narrative combined with extensive evidentiary material — all presented with a keen appreciation for vivid anecdote and background context. In Scott Anderson’s case, the end result is a unique example of journalistic history combining the best of two disciplines.

The title notwithstanding, Lawrence in Arabia takes the form of a group biography revolving around the interwoven activities of four intelligence agents operating in the Middle Eastern provinces of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire during World War I, when the Constantinople government was allied with the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungary against Great Britain, France and (eventually) the US. Foremost of these shadowy figures was T. E. (Thomas Edward) Lawrence, a young, idealistic Anglo-Irish Arabist and Oxford-educated archaeologist based in prewar Syria.

Lawrence’s contemporaries and fellow protagonists were German scholar, diplomat and spy Curt Prüfer; Jewish pioneering agronomist and committed Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn; and American itinerant oilman and adventurer William Yale. Each of these extraordinary individuals, in his own way and for his own purposes, sought to shape developments in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Arabia as the Turkish-ruled Muslim region gradually broke apart under the weight of war.

Lawrence’s role in the story is, of course, well known. First publicized by American newspaperman Lowell Thomas, then through his own postwar writings, principally the literary gem Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), he became “Lawrence of Arabia” on the basis of his peerless organization and leadership of a far-reaching Arab desert revolt against the Turks.

Prüfer, ostensibly a member of the Kaiser’s embassy staff in Cairo, was tasked by his government with fomenting unrest among Britain’s colonial subjects and plotting the military overthrow of British Egypt.

Aaronsohn, a prewar Romanian émigré to what is now Israel, skillfully maneuvered, under British auspices, to help wrest Palestine from the Turks, with the ultimate, unspoken goal of establishing a Jewish homeland there.

Finally, Yale, scion of an aristocratic American family fallen on hard times, represented Washington’s interests in the region post-1917, but his real job was to secretly find and lay claim to Middle Eastern oil, by whatever means necessary, for the Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony).

Although it was a secondary theater of the Great War — Lawrence himself called it a “sideshow” to the European western front — the military operations in the Middle East arguably had a more consequential impact over the long span of history; we’re living with its ramifications today, a century later. As Scott Anderson’s narrative makes clear, it is no accident that the West, in general, and the US, in particular, are inextricably mired in the countries of the Arab world.

Henry Ford may have spoken for most Americans when he characterized history as “bunk,” but the fact is, like it or not, we’re the prisoners of our history. The hatred directed at the US by radical jihadist groups, even the suspicion of our motives emanating from moderate portions of the Arab “street,” can be traced back to the fact that agents like William Yale were scheming on behalf of US oil companies to carve the Middle East into oil concessions as early as 1913.

Nor do the Europeans have clean hands. The Sykes-Picot compact of 1916, under which Britain and France secretly agreed to divide the Ottoman Empire into colonial spheres of influence after the war — the British to get what became Iraq and Palestine, and the French to acquire the future Syria and Lebanon — was signed at the very moment their moderate Arab allies, led by Lawrence, were being promised an independent, pan-Arab nation. To his credit, Arab advocate Lawrence strenuously (but futilely) fought this treachery behind the scenes in a series of intricate maneuvers related in fascinating detail by author Anderson.

While Arabia’s nationalist ambitions were being denied, a development, Anderson shows, that weakened its moderate Muslims and led to a takeover of the Arabian Peninsula by more radical Wahhabists (the indirect sponsors of modern-day jihadism), Zionist ambitions in Palestine were being rewarded.

The British commitment to a future Jewish homeland, equally problematic for our times, was brought about in considerable measure by the tireless, back-channel activities of Aaron Aaronsohn, who frankly advocated a forced removal of inferior native Arabs by Jewish settlers. Aaronsohn’s anti-assimilationist, right-wing Zionism is still being replicated today in the settlements policy of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government and remains one of the roadblocks to Middle East peace.

The surreptitious fifth-column operations of Aaronsohn in Palestine on behalf of the British government paved the way for Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration formally endorsing a national Jewish home. Thereby, the British thought, they were ensuring the wartime support of international Jewry and the entry of America into the war on the Allied side; they got much more — the enduring animus of the Middle East’s Arab population.

With regard to the future Israel, perhaps we should give T.E. Lawrence the final say. In a prescient postwar conversation with fellow intriguer William Yale, related by Scott Anderson, he offered the sober assessment that any Jewish state created in Palestine could only be established and maintained by unending force of arms. So far, sad to say, the enigmatic warrior of the desert has been proven exactly right.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2015


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