- A Line in the Sand: Britain, France, and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East
Like the poor, the Middle East is always with us. Before the First World War, the decline of the Ottoman Empire generated the so-called Eastern Question: What would be the fate of the empire’s constituent territories when the inevitable collapse came? This quandary involved all of the European Great Powers, with Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia each having conflicting claims in the region. The First World War brought about the end of the Ottoman Empire, with the scramble to claim various bits of its debris complicated not only by the war itself but also by the simultaneous collapse of three of the possible territorial claimants (the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian empires). Solving this tangled situation took until 1948, when the creation of the state of Israel and the emergence of the bipolar world changed, but did not resolve, the conflicting claims of the various states in the region.
James Barr, a sometimes journalist with a foot in academe, has made the period from the beginning of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1914 to the foundation of Israel the subject of this interesting and informative book. It is at once an exciting and sordid tale. Barr, as befits a man who has previously written on T. E. Lawrence, has chosen to build his account around a number of the most prominent actors in this drama. He [End Page 119] begins with the negotiations in 1915 between Sir Mark Sykes, a British MP and putative Middle East expert, and François Georges-Picot, a French diplomat, ardent imperialist, and Anglophobe. Between them, the two men carved up the Middle East, mostly without much input from their political masters. This was particularly true in the case of Sykes, as the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, was more interested in the functioning of the British-French alliance than in the disposition of the Ottoman lands. As Barr points out, the Sykes-Picot agreement was seen by the British as “an academic exercise in argument, not a blueprint for the future government of the region.”
However, this proved not to be the case. The need to bring the Arab population of the region into the war meant that Britain turned to yet another Middle East expert, this time the young Oxford scholar Lawrence. As Francophobe as Picot was Anglophobe, Lawrence supported the ambitions of the sharif of Mecca, Hussein, and his son, Feisal, over other possible anti-German Arabs in part because they wished for a greater Arab state that would keep the French out of Syria. Lawrence is at the center of chapters 3 and 4, working in conjunction with the British military commander in the region, General Sir Edmund Allenby, to achieve victory, establish the British position, and exclude the French. Part and parcel of this strategy was to extend support to the Zionists, whose supposed influence in US financial circles was thought important for paying for the war. The result was the Balfour Declaration, vaguely promising a Jewish homeland.
By the end of the war, British predominance on the ground made the goals of the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, to gain the oil-rich region around Mosul and push the Turks out of the region entirely, seemingly possible. However, he had to work around two barriers: the growing opposition to imperialism associated with Woodrow Wilson and the French insistence that they should be accorded the territories of the Sykes-Picot agreement. The result was a shady compromise with regard to the former (through the agency of League of Nations mandates) and rancor with the French. However, when the costs of occupying the entire Middle East became prohibitive, the British turned it all over to Feisal in the hope that the latter’s goal of a greater Arab state would keep the French out of Syria.
The second part of...