“A Peace to End All Peace” by David Fromkin

Certainly today and periodically for several decades, the one spot on the globe experiencing seemingly constant turmoil is the Middle East.  Part of the reason for the unrest is the power vacuum left in the region upon the collapse of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One.  Britain was the main force before, during, and after the war which tried to come up with a workable post-war system of governance for the area; but infighting and disagreement between different British government bureaus, contradictory promises and programs made by successive waves of politicians, and post-war backstabbing among the Entente doomed the result.  (Not just for the Middle East … the “war to end all war” was anything but, as the next generation’s outbreak of hostilities in 1939 attests.)

To be fair, it isn’t really clear if the British could have done anything to completely avoid future unrest in the fractured region.  The Middle East was not and is not totally similar to the Western concept of nation-states.  This quote from the book is in reference to Mesopotamia, but it also could apply to the region as a whole:

“It was evident that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix, … the antipathy between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the rivalries of tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions…  <This> made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective, and widely supported.”

A prime example of the British bungling is actually a pretty funny misunderstanding.  Early on, the British intention was to install Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, as Caliph — they thought that “Caliph” was more or less like  the Pope of Islam; the thinking was that the British could pacify all the Arabs through a Caliph under their control.  However, the British didn’t understand that “Caliph” is a secular title as well as a spiritual one (and not really equivalent to the Pope at all); the Emir thought he was going to greatly expand his domain with British help, and the other Arab tribes were duly alarmed at the possibility.  Also, there are a multitude of factions within Islam; many were diametrically opposed to Hussein on religious grounds.  (After the war Britain found itself funding both sides of another armed conflict between Hussein and Ibn Saud.  Doh!)

According to Fromkin, America also deserves some of the blame for the fate of the Middle East.  At the post-war peace conference(s), Woodrow Wilson came full of lofty ideals (League of Nations, anti-imperialism/local rule) but with no practical plans for implementation and (as it later became clear) without the support of the isolationist-leaning Congress and American public.  The awkward League of Nations Mandates throughout the Middle East took time to set up and negotiate and ended up not working very well; plus the US left Britain high and dry by refusing to accept Mandates itself.  Once Wilson left office, the Harding administration’s concern for the area was solely to protect America’s economic interests, namely oil.

By the early 1920s, a few years after the armistice, the peace treaties were finally settled (in the end, the important decisions were made bilaterally by just Britain and France, although literally thousands of groups sent delegates to the conferences), but the treaties didn’t really matter much because things were already spiraling out of control and had developed an unstoppable momentum of their own (ie Kemal in Turkey).  The British had been forced to demobilize most of the occupying army in the years since the armistice; it was essentially powerless to stop the Middle East from falling apart everywhere by 1922 or so.

So complete was the disarray in the region by 1922, with rebellions in virtually every spot the British were trying to maintain order in the Middle East, that officials thought there must be some Bolshevik or French or Jewish plot afoot.

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 predominantly 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.

(I wonder if some historian in 50 years will write something like that about Iraq and Afghanistan, but with “America” instead of “Britain”??)

In almost the final page, Fromkin draws an analogy of the Middle East after the Ottomans to Dark Ages Europe after the Romans.  It took over 1000 years for Europe to stabilize into today’s stable system of nations, and a lot of blood was spilled along the way.  Hopefully the Middle East can sort things out sooner than that….

Just a couple more fascinating items about Churchill and the beginning of the Ottoman war:

  • On the eve of war, Churchill confiscated two Ottoman battleships under construction in British naval yards.  When the Ottomans later allied with Germany, Churchill got the blame for pushing them into German arms.  However, Fromkin points out that Turkey long wanted an alliance with some Great Power but none would accept them; it is speculated that Turkey promised the battleships to pre-war battleship-obsessed Germany (remember the British-German Dreadnought-gap?), knowing that they were probably lost anyway.  Germany entered into a secret alliance, which stuck despite the loss of the ships.
  • After Germany and Britain went to war, the Ottomans stayed neutral for months.  Germany wanted the Ottomans to honor the secret alliance and declare war too, but the Ottomans hesitated.  Germany didn’t want to publicize the secret alliance, so it attempted to draw them into the war by sending Admiral Souchon and with two ships to Constantinople.  To give these ships safe harbor would break their neutrality, so the quick-thinking Ottomans announced that they had purchased the ships from Germany to make up for those confiscated by Britain.  Souchon and his men were given fezes (yes, really) and inducted into the Ottoman Navy.  One can only imagine the reaction back at German Naval HQ.  Souchon was pretty clever though and he had the last laugh; he took his “fleet” into the Black Sea and started bombarding Russia.  The Ottomans were in the war.
  • The British Navy invaded the Dardanelles in March 1915, but Admiral de Robeck backed off after just a day.  Intelligence knew that Turks were out of ammo, but still he chickened out, afraid of naval mines.  The Turks had all but given orders to surrender.  The British instead regrouped and attacked later in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, by which time the Turks had regrouped and strengthened their defenses.  The Navy’s timidity maddened Churchill – many still think that war in the East could have ended right there in early 1915 and thus hastened Germany’s defeat.
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