The recent rerelease of David Lean's film ''Lawrence of Arabia'' enables audiences to relive Britain's World War I campaign to carve an independent Arab state out of the old Ottoman Empire. But even the new, expanded version of the film will leave viewers little the wiser about the reasons the British were supporting the Arabs, why the Ottoman Turks were allied with the Germans and what T. E. Lawrence was doing in the Arabian desert in the first place. Fortunately, people can now turn to an outstanding book that will provide them with the full historical and political background - and much more.
''A Peace to End All Peace'' is about the dissolution of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I and the consequences of that breakup for the Western powers, the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, the peoples of the Middle East themselves. On a still larger scale, the book concerns the political origins of the present-day Middle East. It concludes with the piecemeal territorial settlements of 1922, when political lines were drawn that bear a striking resemblance to the boundaries of today.
These are heroic themes, seldom pursued collectively because of their complexity and the difficulty of seeing them whole. David Fromkin rises to the challenge. He combines the adventure of Alan Moorehead's ''White Nile'' with the drama of Barbara Tuchman's ''Guns of August.'' It would be an exaggeration to say that ''A Peace to End All Peace'' succeeds as well as those popular classics - indeed, it has a major flaw - but it rivals them.
Like Moorehead and Tuchman, Mr. Fromkin is a nonacademic historian (an international lawyer, in fact, though one would never guess it from his straightforward narrative style). Sometimes it requires an outsider to make the work of academic historians comprehensible to a general audience. And sometimes there are subjects about which so much has been written that one needs a single book to sum up everything cogently yet not simplistically. Mr. Fromkin scores on both points. Drawing on a vast number of specialized studies that have never before been satisfactorily synthesized, he is the right person at the right time.
From the Napoleonic era on, the broad arena of the Middle East was the battleground of Britain's struggle to protect the road to India from its traditional rivals, France and Russia. During the First World War this grand 19th-century contest, known as the ''Great Game,'' reached its climax; partly in fear of expansion by its wartime ally, Russia, Britain forged alliances with the Arabs, encouraging them to revolt against their Turkish rulers. ''A Peace to End All Peace'' is one of the first books to take an effective panoramic view of what was happening, not only in Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and the Arab regions of Asia, but also in Afghanistan and central Asia. Among the reasons for Mr. Fromkin's success is the breadth of his vision, which takes the reader deep into areas normally not associated with the Middle East.
The book is Anglocentric in the sense that it relies on English-language sources and focuses mainly on British military actions and decisions. Nevertheless, the Turkish and Russian parts of the story are effectively told, with the help of such work as that of Richard Ullman on Britain and the Russian Revolution. Mr. Fromkin successfully relates as well how the wartime competition between Britain and France over Syria, Lebanon and Palestine became part of the Great Game. After Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby marched into Jerusalem on Dec. 11, 1917, opening up Palestine to British occupation, hopes were raised in several Government offices throughout London that French claims in the area might be minimized.
Even when the British were fighting alongside the French and Russians against the Germans and Turks, the Great Game was never far from their minds. From the time of the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Lord Kitchener, Britain's Secretary of State for War, aimed to obstruct the possible expansion of Russia into the Middle East. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, once likened Kitchener to ''a great revolving lighthouse.'' Sometimes, he said, Kitchener's intellect would project light, then there would be sudden darkness. He might have added that on the subject of Russian aggrandizement, the beam never shut off.
After Kitchener's death in 1916, Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, became ''guardian of the flame of the Great Game.'' Though Curzon was the most historically minded of the British statesmen during the First World War, his judgment was not especially reliable. He had a tendency to exaggerate. In 1918 he said, ''The great power from whom we have most to fear in [ the ] future is France.'' Two years later he claimed ''the Russian menace in the East is incomparably greater than anything else that has happened in my time to the British Empire.''
Yet it was Curzon, probably more than anyone else, who grasped the basis of self-determination, the principle on which the United States hoped to establish peace in the Middle East after the war. ''I am inclined to value the argument of self-determination,'' he said, ''because I believe that most of the people would determine in our favour. . . . If we cannot get out of our difficulties in any other way we ought to play self-determination for all it is worth wherever we are involved in difficulties with the French, the Arabs, or anybody else, and leave the case to be settled by that final argument knowing in the bottom of our hearts that we are more likely to benefit from it than anybody else.''
Not surprisingly, Mr. Fromkin characterizes British promises to the Arabs as ''sheer dishonesty.'' He says, for example, the Arab Bureau in Cairo ''did not believe that Arabs were capable of self-government,'' that behind the ''fac,ade'' of Arab self-rule would be indirect British rule.
Seen in this perspective, all parts of the Middle Eastern puzzle begin to fall into place, including the Balfour Declaration. In 1917 the British promised the Jews a national home in Palestine, while simultaneously assuring the Palestinian Arabs that the pledge would not be carried out at their expense. The Great Game was once again a key reason. According to Philip Kerr, secretary and adviser to the Prime Minister, a Jewish Palestine was considered ''a bridge between Africa, Asia and Europe on the road to India.'' (Other historians have pointed out that the Balfour Declaration was also designed to protect the Suez Canal. Mr. Fromkin seems not to have read Michael Cohen's ''Churchill and the Jews,'' for example, where Curzon is quoted as asking in 1918, ''Has not the whole history of the War shown us . . . that Palestine is really the strategic buffer of Egypt?'') Lloyd George himself held a somewhat different view, believing that a Jewish state would be agreeable to God's will as well as to British interests. His attitude should not be taken as hypocritical. ''Lloyd George's Zionism'' is the title of one of the best chapters in the book. Unlike most of his colleagues in the British Cabinet, who had been trained in Greek and Latin classics, the Prime Minister had been brought up on the Bible. He once said, in the words of I Samuel 15, that it would not be worth conquering the Holy Land only to ''hew it in pieces before the Lord.'' Lloyd George also believed that Palestine ''must be one and indivisible to renew its greatness as a living entity.'' All that did not prevent him from shrewdly foreseeing Britain's future in Palestine: ''We shall be there by conquest and shall remain,'' he predicted. Among the more obscure pieces of the puzzle is Sir Mark Sykes, the mastermind behind the redrawing of the boundaries of the Middle East and therefore, in a sense, the man most responsible for ''creating the modern Middle East.'' Mr. Fromkin has brought this relatively unknown statesman to light, making excellent use of the work of such scholars as Roger Adelson. Before the war, Sykes was one of the few members of Parliament who had traveled widely in the Middle East. He served as the Middle East expert to Kitchener and later to the War Cabinet secretariat. His goal, opposed by some anti-French members of the Government, was the construction of a French buffer zone in Lebanon and Syria as a sort of Chinese Great Wall that would prevent Russian penetration into the Middle East, just as the British, seeking to consolidate their Middle East holdings after World War II, welcomed American influence in Greece and Turkey as a check against Soviet expansion.
Sykes' ideas about the region bore a remarkable resemblance to those of T. E. Lawrence. Cautioning the reactionaries in the British Cabinet against treating the Middle East as another India, he warned: ''If you work from India you have all the old traditions of black and white, and you can not run the Arabs on black and white lines.'' Lawrence, similarly, wrote in 1919: ''My own ambition is that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony.'' Mr. Fromkin does not do justice, in my opinion, to Lawrence's quirky brilliance, yet he does reduce the legend of ''Lawrence of Arabia'' to historical reality. ''Lawrence possessed many virtues,'' he writes, ''but honesty was not among them; he passed off his fantasies as the truth.'' Mr. Fromkin takes a jaundiced view of the romantic interpretation of Lawrence as the liberator of the Arabs, describing him as ''a teller of fantastic tales whom the American showman Lowell Thomas transformed into 'Lawrence of Arabia.' ''
One part of the jigsaw does not quite fit, Mr. Fromkin's insistence on Winston Churchill's central role in his story. He writes in the introduction, ''Churchill, above all, presides over the pages of this book: a dominating figure whose genius animated events and whose larger-than-life personality colored and enlivened them.'' Elsewhere, he seeks to demonstrate Churchill's contribution to the cause of Zionism, and indeed to resolving all the problems of the Middle Eastern settlement following the war. In 1921, Mr. Fromkin points out, the consistently pro-Zionist Churchill warned an Arab delegation: ''The British Government mean to carry out the Balfour Declaration. I have told you so again and again. I told you so at Jerusalem. I told you so at the House of Commons the other day. I tell you so now. They mean to carry out the Balfour Declaration. They do.''
Read more >>>