- The Great War and the Middle East: A Strategic Study by Rob Johnson
The Middle East remains a deeply misunderstood part of the history of the First World War. For some, such as the Islamic State, the war in the Middle East was little more than a smokescreen to allow the West to subjugate Muslim peoples and to take control of the region's vast natural resource wealth. Diplomatic negotiations like those held by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, as the Islamic State and others have claimed, created illegitimate borders: borders, such as the crossing between Iraq and Syria, that the Islamic State bulldozed nearly three years ago in a symbolic rejection of the war's long-term legacy. Others, particularly in the Arab world, have looked to the Balfour Declaration as surefire proof that the war in the Middle East was part of a worldwide Zionist conspiracy to evict Palestinian Arabs and establish a Jewish state. In the West, too, the recent breakdown of Baghdad's political authority, continued sectarian violence and the strained relationship between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds have been pointed to as evidence that the postwar creation of Iraq from three somewhat separate ethno-religious communities was a catastrophic failure.
With so much uncertainty about the Middle East's future, and so much misinformation peddled by both ends of the political spectrum, it is even more important that greater numbers of historians of the First World War have been turning their attention to the Middle East. Works about wartime logistics, combat experience, soldier morale, the day-to-day lives of the region's peoples and the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire have all been published in recent years.1 What has been missing, however, is a study of the direct link between how state policy dictated military strategy, and how military strategy was turned into military operations. Understanding that link between policy and strategy, and strategy and operations, is the main goal, and the main reward, of Rob Johnson's The Great War and the Middle East.
Johnson begins by discussing prewar imperial strategy and the overarching importance of expanding or securing imperial borders and possessions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He then moves on to the Middle East's role in imperial decision-making in 1914, pan-Islamism as a tool of the Ottomans and Germans and as a geopolitical threat to the British, the major campaigns of the war years (Gallipoli, Sinai, Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus and the Arab Revolt), the fall of the Ottoman Empire and, last, the postwar settlement and the continuation of conflict in the region long after the Treaty of Sèvres dissolved the Ottoman Empire.
As good a narrative of the First World War in the Middle East as it is, Johnson's book stands out for three reasons. To start, Johnson pays almost obsessive attention to the relationship between, as he puts it, "ends, ways, and means." His explanation of the invasion of the Dardanelles Peninsula, the British decision to advance from Egypt into the Sinai and Palestine, and even the stillborn British and French plan to carry out an amphibious landing at Alexandretta take on new meaning when one thinks about ends, ways and means.
Second, Johnson pays special attention to the role of local actors in facilitating and frustrating the strategies of major European powers. From Jafar al-Askari, an Ottoman Army officer turned Arab nationalist and Sharifian rebel, to Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia and the man who, as much as any Western diplomat or politician, derailed Arab nationalism and the dream of a pan-Arab state, Johnson convincingly argues that these men were not compelled or coerced by major powers. Instead, he shows how they sought out alliances and arrangements on their own terms, and made decisions that furthered their own causes; they were, in short, active, not reactive, historical agents. This is a crucial point when one considers both Johnson's goal to link policy and strategy to events on...