“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, Madrid Spain (16 December, 1863 – 26 September, 1952)
Yes, I know – sorry – but the phrase remains true and at least I gave it the honor of attribution instead of peddling it as my own unique and ground-breaking insight.
In this case, I’m referring to the book “Lawrence in Arabia” by Scott Anderson, which I just finished. It was given to me as a gift over two months ago and it took me this long to get through because there was a lot to think about (and because I got sidetracked – again – by W. Somerset Maugham; something that keeps happening despite my attempts to stay focused. But I digress).
The sub-title of this book really says it all, “The Making of the Modern Middle East”. Even smart people live their lives in a time vacuum, pretending that there is no historical baggage associated with daily events we see play out in the world around us. This is, counter-intuitively, even more true for policy makers. Administrations tend to see the world in four year chunks and act accordingly. Which is why reading books like this one is so important.
This book tells the tale of the reshaping of the Middle East through the story of one man – T.E. Lawrence – who was an unlikely military officer acting in a forgotten corner of the “War to End All Wars” (which, sadly, didn’t live up to its name). The Middle East as we know it today was born out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during WWI, the connivance of the British and the French to carve up the remnants of the Ottoman world, and the struggle by the Arabs (assisted clandestinely by Lawrence) to achieve self-determination after 400 years of brutal Ottoman rule. And of course the sub-plot, the efforts by a committed group of European and American Jews to return to their historical lands.
This is not really a success story – forgive the understatement. In point of fact, we are seeing the fallout of foolish 100 year old decisions play themselves out every night on the nightly news. The reprehensible Sykes-Picot agreement privately divvying up the Middle East between the British and the French (and while lying to the Arabs about true Entente intentions). The Balfour Declaration declaring British support for a Jewish homeland in their historical lands (No, this was not a bad policy. The Jews have a natural right to their homeland both as a God-given reality and as a safe haven of last resort, which the war after the “War to End All Wars” proved). The betrayal of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca who (with his son Faisal) sought to establish a pan-Arab nation (with the idea of uniting Shia and Sunni factions to that one over-arching vision while building working alliances with a new Jewish nation). The decision by the British Colonial Administration in India to go against London in propping up the strict Wahhabist Abdul Aziz al Saud against King Hussein (and we all know how that has gone). The limitation of the Hussein Royal Lineage to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (which, incidentally, ranks above Costa Rica, Peru and Panama in the 2015 Economic Freedom Index). And finally Wilsonian idealism played up and against the realpolitik of the Entente victors.
“Lawrence in Arabia” is a story of blood and betrayal and missed opportunities; of Imperial folly by those who thought they had the right to decide over the lives of others – ignoring the deep and rich history of those old lands. Ironically, even Mark Sykes himself – sent to survey the post-war situation in newly acquired European-administered Arabia – repented saying, “Whoever takes over Syria ought to realize that to have a purely native administration running things badly, but with prospects of improvement, represents more real progress than having European staff doing things properly but with the natives learning nothing”.
We should learn from this story. Especially those who work on issues affecting the Middle East should really pick up a copy and start to become familiar with where the arbitrary lines in the sand come from and how they were drawn, who the players are and what are their backgrounds, why there is such distrust and how it was engendered. And policymakers should read this – if for no other reason than to not fall into the same traps of the past, repeating mistakes made by those who have gone before and reaping dire consequences both intended and unintended.