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Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East by Karl E. Meyer & Shareen Blair Brysac. (Norton: 2008. ISBN 978-0-393-06199-4) – An Extended Review

April 30, 2017

Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East by Karl E. Meyer & Shareen Blair Brysac. (Norton: 2008. ISBN 978-0-393-06199-4) – An Extended Review

1.

One comes across good histories of the Middle East infrequently. Books are rare that offer some perspective on the current mess in the region, that provide some insights into how the history of the past 150 years can be explained to develop a framework to understand the present realities. But every once in a while a gem is produced that hits the nail on the head. Needless to say, no 423 pages of text can cover more than an outline of the region’s history, yet, a well-structured book can help readers make some sense of it all.

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair-Brysac have produced such a volume in their Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East which was published by Norton in 2008. Nearly a decade later, the book still resonates. Were I still teaching “History of the Modern Middle East Since 1800″ Meyer and Brysac would be one of the chosen texts, if not the main one. Besides the fact that it is gracefully written and well researched, in probing the lives of the so-called “kingmakers” it provides biographies of some of the people in the context of the times in which they lived and worked. The book focuses on mostly British colonial administrators with a few American C.I.A. operatives thrown in towards the end. They were all instrumental in shaping the region since the late 19th century.

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair-Brysac have produced such a volume in their Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East which was published by Norton in 2008. Nearly a decade later, the book still resonates. Were I still teaching “History of the Modern Middle East Since 1800″ Meyer and Brysac would be one of the chosen texts, if not the main one. Besides the fact that it is gracefully written and well researched, in probing the lives of the so-called “kingmakers” it provides biographies of some of the people in the context of the times in which they lived and worked. The book focuses on mostly British colonial administrators with a few American C.I.A. operatives thrown in towards the end. They were all instrumental in shaping the region since the late 19th century.

The book takes an interesting approach, looking at a number of personalities – undoubtedly people who did to a certain degree help shape the region – in their historic context. As Meyer himself noted in a recent talk,

“Of course the history of the Middle East would be quite different if it had no oil, if its geography was different, the fact that it was mid passage to India had automatic consequences for it, the fact that oil was discovered there in the 20th century had immense implications (for the region) – so that’s the impersonal aspect of the subject…As for the personal approach, we don’t take “the great men’s theory seriously, but we are very much aware of what you might call the mid-level official’s importance.”

In what amount to twelve biographical sketches some of the main themes of British and then American Middle East political decision-making comes into focus.

It is worth noting the “cast of stars” (or scoundrels, if you wish). No doubt they have all greatly influenced the shape of the modern Middle East: Evelyn Baring, first earl of Cromer; Dame Flora Shaw and Lord Frederick Lugard, Sir Mark Sykes; A. T. Wilson; Gertrude Bell; T. E. Lawrence; H.S.J.B. Philby; Glubb Pasha; Sirs Cox, Sykes and Loraine; Kermit Roosevelt; Miles Copeland and Paul Wolfowitz make up the list. All of those featured were not the leaders of their country but were instead what Meyer refers to as “mid-level officials.” These are the technicians, the bureaucrats of empire, not the more highly profiled leaders. In this volume their role at different key junctures of modern Middle East history is critical. Each is representative of a different moment in the history of the region from the early 1880s through 2008. Over the course of the book, the reader travels from Egypt to Iraq and Persia (later named Iran), to Syria, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. While certainly a detailed history of each country is not given, still, these countries are explored at key moments of their history, one might even say the formative movement in each case.

In the end, the authors’ critique both British and U.S. Middle East policy, and if they don’t come out and say so openly, the strong suggestion in both cases, is that their Middle East policies were and are a failure, short-term gains leading to long-term structural crises.The authors have a keen sense of what the British and Americans tried to do and why, ultimately arguing that whether it was Cromer’s policy of indirect (but controlled) rule over Egypt or the well planned (and financed) overthrow of Mossadegh by a team of C.I.A. sleuths headed up by Kermit Roosevelt – that in these two and other cases, the ultimate result was failure.

One limitation of the volume,: there is little that explains use of religious fundamentalism to counter what were through most of the 20th century secular, or secular oriented national movements throughout the region. Using the religious right against the secular left has a long sordid history that started with the British cultivation of the Moslem Brotherhoods in Egypt in the 1920s. It is mentioned, but hardly explored in-depth. Nor are the fanatical groups that emerged from Islamic fundamentalism’s bosom: the groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS. Their close relation to mentors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc is also largely neglected …and with that a connection to world powers, be they in Washington D.C., London or Paris.

What then is the major theme that runs through all these biographical sketches?

It is the effort, successful in the short-run, a failure in the long run to establish colonial rule in the Middle East “on the cheap,” ie, utilizing local allies directed from behind the curtains by British (or later American) advisers to meet the political and economic needs of the colonial power. It is also “colonialism on the sneak”, – ie. a form of domination most vividly exemplified by post WW-2 neo-colonialism, a colonialism in which countries – Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan – have the appearances of sovereignty but which in essence are hostages, political, economic and cultural hostages of this or that colonizing power.

2.

In 1830, using a rather shallow pretext, France had “temporarily” invaded Algeria. It took the French more than twenty years and the lives of more than 200,000 Algerian resisters before the country was mostly pacified. It marked the beginning of an aggressive European colonial entrance into the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. The race for domination intensified in the late 1870s and early 1880s. In 1878, in the aftermath of the Russian-Turkish War, the first of several “congresses” was held in Berlin to divvy up the increasingly weakened Ottoman and Persian Empires into spheres of influence. This was the start of a race between the French, British, Russians, German, Italians, Greeks and Spanish to stake their claims on the region, something of a free-for-all that would, three decades on lead to World War One.

According to the treaty signed in Berlin, the Ottomans lost two-fifths of the empire’s territory and one-fifth of its population in the Balkans and eastern Anatolia. Russia was “granted” a considerable region of what is today eastern Turkey. Soon thereafter, the British seized Cyprus. At the same time (1881-2) that the French gobbled up Tunisia, British troops entered Egypt “temporarily”. At around the same time Russian influence in Persia (modern Iran) grew dramatically as a result of the 1881 Treaty of Akhal. By virtue of this treaty, Persia would henceforth cease any claim to all parts of Turkestan and Transoxiana, setting the Atrek River as the new boundary. It also ceded considerable economic and trade rights to Russia. Not to be deterred by increased Russian influence, the British also increased their control, especially of the southern regions of Persia bordering on the Persian Gulf, whose waters they had dominated for most of the 19th century.

A number of factor converged of a strategic, economic nature that fueled the race for colonial influence spheres. They were often wrapped in racist perception of MENA peoples, be it the British racist nonsense of “the white man’s burden” (which was actually the brown and black man’s burden) or the French flowery pretext for what amounted to colonial rape, “la mission civilisatrice.”

Often underplayed (and largely ignored in Western accounts) was the need for European industrial countries to create “peripheral” (a la Wallerstein) economic zones, regions that would provide European industrializing core countries with cheap raw materials and food stuff on the one hand, and on the other force the MENA region itself to de-industrialize and to accept European-made manufactured goods. This economic reshaping of the region had been unfolding for at least a century prior to Britain seizing Egypt, but it culminated in the events of the late 1870s and early 1880s. By that time, the industrial/manufacturing activities of the Ottoman Empire had been stripped to almost nothing through increasingly punitive trade policy backed by military might as was the classic case of Egypt earlier in the century.

Hand in hand with growing economic subservience was increasing political domination, which began by controlling MENA finance and trade policy which morphed into increased political control. The question was, in all cases, how to manage that control, directly, as the French did in Algeria with a full-blown settler colonial system or indirectly as the British did in Nigeria, Egypt and ultimately India. The articles in “Kingmakers” are all examples of the British colonial model – a small British colonizing administration that included a co-opted native element with the larger indigenous population divided among itself either ethnically, religiously or both – all this backed by military force. Divide and conquer. It worked like a charm but from a historical view-point, only for a short period, less than 100 years. Actually the system – be it in India, Nigeria or Egypt – began to show deep fissures that would ultimately lead to the collapse of colonialism, long before – after 30, 40 years.

Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence, in Cairo, 1921

Using extensive documentary material, and again, gracefully written, Meyer and Brysac’s account of Gertrude Bell’s role gets to the essence of what was British colonial policy in Iraq and beyond. When after World War II, when, within a decade, Britain would be replaced by the United States as the main neo-colonial power in the region, much of U.S. political machinations in the region would be based upon what might be called “The Gertrude Bell Model…plus the C.I.A.”

3.

Each of the biographical portraits presented in this volume deserves consideration. They were well-chosen and were without a doubt people who “made a difference.” But let’s be clear: they were “the best and the brightest” of an oppressive colonial and neo-colonial system and tradition, its initiators, administrators, strategic thinkers. To understand them as some kind of humanists or other standouts separate from the imperialist systems to which they helped give birth and nurture, is to miss the point.

None of them actually wielded political power in the countries from which they came.

Instead, they were virtually all from what might be called “the mandarin class” – the intelligentsia – educated, many of them multi-lingual, the best of them politically liberal in their views, most of them the opposite of people who might be called dogmatists. They tended to be better informed, smarter, politically more astute than the political leaders they served who sometimes took their advice, other times didn’t. Some of them naively believed they could outwit or out-organize the systems in which they found themselves enmeshed, that they could reform or shape it to their own values…and that in the end they could determine policy. Such thinking was their “grand illusion.”

Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence come to mind. In this respect they were sadly mistaken. Ultimately regardless of their personal views, even the most modest and least racist among them personally, accepted and perpetuated the system of racial  arrogance that has been part and parcel of modern Imperialism, be it the British or American version.

Using extensive documentary material, and again, gracefully written, Meyer and Brysac’s account of Gertrude Bell’s role gets to the essence of what was British colonial policy in Iraq and beyond. When after World War II, when, within a decade, Britain would be replaced by the United States as the main neo-colonial power in the region, much of U.S. political machinations in the region would be based upon what might be called “The Gertrude Bell Model…plus the C.I.A.”

On July 12, 1926. Gertrude Bell swallowed a lethal dose of pills and as a result, died in her sleep. She had been depressed for a few years prior. Having lived so long in the Middle East – most of her life, in Iraq in particular – the idea of spending her declining years in the England of her youth left her bored. Having for so long been a key player – if not the key player – in Britain’s emerging Middle East political neo-colonial construction, she was not one who could simply retire from politics’ center stage gracefully. But by 1925 her services to Britain’s Arab  Bureau and to King Faisal of Iraq were no longer sought, needed nor wanted. She had morphed almost in an instant from a strategic neo-colonial kingmaker to a political “has-been” archaeologist.

Faisal, who owed much to her for his position as king of Iraq was distancing himself from her influence to follow a slightly more independent path. While her role was vital in setting up British neo-colonial structures (Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt) throughout the region, once those structures were in place, her services were, frankly,  no longer needed. Still, once she had ended her life, Faisal, laying it on thick, paid her the tribute in death, the respect, which he had denied her these last years of her life:

“Gertrude Bell is a name written indelibly on Arab history, a name which is spoken with awe, like that of Napoleon, Nelson or Mussolini. One might say that she was the greats woman of her time. Without question her claim to greatness is on a footing with women like Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell, Madame Curie and others.”

A bit overstated no doubt, but still but hers was an unusual and in many ways an extraordinary life and the mark that she left on the Middle East undeniable. Even the New York Times heaped praise on her referring to Bell in the following terms: “Not since the days of Zenobia has a woman played so dominant a role in the destinies of the Middle East.” Again, a bit overstated…although undoubtedly Gertrude Bell was a force.

Gertrude Bell was essentially a traveler-turned anthropologist, without the degree, or more precisely the prototype for the intelligence officer she became. As a result of extensive travels throughout the Arab World heartland and Persia starting in 1892, she became nothing short of an expert on the region’s history and culture. By the turn of the 20th century she had become fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German; and could speak Italian and Turkish as well. She traveled great distances throughout the region, much of it alone – unheard of for a foreign woman – and in the course of her travels became intensely familiar with the different nomadic tribes of the region, their leaders, the sheikhs. She knew the rivalries, alliances, political machinations of the different elements within the region as well as or frankly better than pretty much anyone in the British government. As such was an invaluable asset to a British government – frankly not having much of a clue as to how to extend its domination to the oil rich region in the aftermath of World War One. She towered intellectually above the likes of Mark Sykes (Sykes-Picot Treaty) and many of the British Administrators she worked with in her knowledge and insights as to how to establish a British influence sphere in the region and the shape it should take, and she did this – obviously – as a woman in a world and a time where woman’s worth was rather low.

What were some of her concrete contributions?

  • As a member of the Arab Bureau during World War One, she was able to provide the British with intelligence on the local sheikhs, tribes as well as detailed, accurate, to then non-existent maps of the region. This she did by compiling a handbook on northern Arabia’s Bedouin tribes, all of this information vital in the British decision to kindle and then support the Arab Revolt (against Ottoman Rule).
  • It was Bell as much as anyone who convinced the British to put their weight behind the Hashemite Family (at the time – the rulers of Mecca and Medina – in leading the revolt).
  • Her knowledge, after the 1915 British defeat at Kut (along the Tigris River) at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, Gertrude Bells’ familiarity with the Bedouin tribes along the Tigris-Euphrates River systems south of Baghdad were critical in winning support for these elements. Britain won the second Battle of Kut and proceeded soon after to Baghdad.
  • Through her efforts – and those of her close colleagues, T. E. Lawrence and H.S.J.B. Philby, she was able to convince London that Iraq should not become a colony of the British colonial empire in India, but a “semi-autonomous (nominally independent but controlled by London) entity. She was crystal clear on her opposition to actual Arab self-determination: “The stronger the hold we [the British] are able to keep here [Iraq], the better the inhabitants will be pleased…they can’t conceive an independent Arab government”
  • It is Bell as much as anyone who set up the political system in Iraq in which the dominant Shi’a population would be ruled by a Sunni minority, a fundamentally unstable (but typically colonial) situation that could only be kept together by force and would eventually, after 2003 with more than a little help from the George W. Bush Administration, explode and shatter.
  • She argued, successfully, but by alienating her superiors in Baghdad, for a post-war Iraq in which the Arabs – not any Arabs but those chosen by London, which meant by herself – would rule nominally with the British controlling all decisions behind the scenes as “advisers” much as Lord Cromer had done in Egypt.
  • It was Bell, with the help of T. E. Lawrence, that cultivated the Hashemite Prince Faisal, who grew up in Mecca and Medina, and had him installed as “King” of Iraq, bringing together – or more accurately slamming together – three regions will little in common – the Shi’a south, a Sunni dominated region around Baghdad and a Kurdish population in the north into one country, whose very name, Iraq, and boundaries, Bell determined.
  • The political and geographic prescriptions that Bell proposed and that London implemented led to one of the many Shi’a rebellions (1920). When it was over, as Meyer and Brysac note, “the cost was ten thousand dead, an estimated nine thousand from RAF bombs, many on civilian targets.”
  • In the aftermath of the rebellion, A.T. Wilson, the ruling British consul was replaced by Sir Percy Cox. Cox delegated Bell and Philby to create a council for the provisional government the British wanted to establish in Iraq. The government that Bell and Philby set up was made up of ministers “nearly all of them chosen, following Ottoman practice” from the minority Sunnis, by the British authorities, who then attached themselves to each ministry as advisers.” Although they had been promised, there were no elections, a situation setting up a system of Sunni domination of the Shi’a majority that could only be maintained by force and repression
  • It is Bell who cultivated and promoted Nuri Pasha al-Said, recognizing his political usefulness. Nuri Said would over the years, become Iraq’s Prime Minister fourteen times and Britain’s closest ally in the Middle East. He became nothing short of the symbol of British colonial domination. Some forty years on, in July 1958, when the monarchy Bell had so much influence in setting up was finally overthrown, Nuri Said tried to disguise himself as a woman and flee Baghdad.  He was shot dead and buried that same day, but an angry mob disinterred his corpse and dragged it through the streets of Baghdad, where it was hung up, burned and mutilated, ultimately being run over repeatedly by municipal buses, until his corpse was unrecognizable.
  • The system that Bell helped put in place was one in which the Iraqis paid for much, if not most of their own colonization, in the case of Iraq, with oil profits, a principle that Paul Wolfowitz would try to apply eighty years later.
  • Although she did not initiate the RAF bombing campaigns against Shi’a insurgents in which napalm and poison gas were used against civilian populations, she supported the bombings as a way to pacify the southern Iraqi countryside. The bombing campaign permitted the British to war against Iraqi rebels without sending hundreds of thousands of troops to Iraq to do the job, again, a kind of precursor for U.S. use of surrogates and drone attacks in Syria, Yemen, Somalia today.

 

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