x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The men who would make kings

Books A much-lauded new book seeks to understand the modern Middle East through the mindsets of its erstwhile colonisers. Patricia Goldstone wishes it also examined the kings they made.

The usual suspects: The Mespot Commission at the Cairo Conference, 1921. The group was set up by Winston Churchill (centre front row) to discuss the future of the Arab nations with the likes of Gertrude Bell (second from left, second row) and TE Lawrence (fourth from the right, second row).
The usual suspects: The Mespot Commission at the Cairo Conference, 1921. The group was set up by Winston Churchill (centre front row) to discuss the future of the Arab nations with the likes of Gertrude Bell (second from left, second row) and TE Lawrence (fourth from the right, second row).

A much-lauded new book seeks to understand the modern Middle East through the mindsets of its erstwhile colonisers. Patricia Goldstone wishes it also examined the kings they made.

Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East KE Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac WW Norton and Co Dh95

At the beginning of Kingmakers, authors Karl E Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac approvingly quote the legendary TE Lawrence "of Arabia" on the rules for transliterating Arabic into English: "I despise 'em all, and spell anyhow, and variably, to show my feelings." Lawrence's disdain for the niceties of spelling was predicated in part by his shaky grasp of Arabic, a fact worth keeping in mind when reading this primer on failed British and American policies in the Middle East.

Kingmakers sets out, in the authors' words, to "recover, critically but empathetically, the mentality that propelled Europe's penetration of the Middle East and points south" (meaning Africa) by retelling the history of the past century through the lives of would-be nation-builders who defined boundaries and anointed local rulers. Unfortunately, like Lawrence the translator, the authors seem to prefer empathy to precision. They excitedly identify with their colonial kingmakers, but they do not actually understand their failures.

The cast of characters is large, mostly British and mostly familiar. Many of them - like Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and Kermit Roosevelt (Theodore's nephew, who worked for the CIA) - are already so well- covered that writing about them risks redundancy. Others include Sir Evelyn Baring (aka Lord Cromer), who became Egypt's consul general when Britain took control of the country; the administrator Lord Lugard and his wife Dame Flora Shaw, the colonial editor of The Times (Nigeria's "power couple"); Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, the Deputy Civil Commissioner of Iraq who, along with Bell, was tasked in 1921 with installing the hashemite Emir Faisal on the throne of Iraq and making it look like a free election; General Edmund Ironside, who handpicked a rough army sergeant named Mohammed Reza to rule Persia when the old Qajar shah was deposed; and Paul Wolfowitz.

The result is a hugely ambitious, intermittently fascinating and mostly frustrating book that covers and attempts to link key events in the formation of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Israel. Perhaps it is inevitable that such a narrative skips, digresses and doubles back on itself in order to accommodate the enormous chunks of expositions necessary to explain each region. The authors argue that this approach enables a lay readership (of chapter-surfers?) to "skip around and ahead, without losing their way in the labyrinth", but it produces a book that is difficult and often irritating to read consecutively.

Of course, the scattered histories are predictably rich with tantalizing nuggets. One fascinating chapter is devoted to Miles Copeland, the CIA operative who helped destabilise Syria in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Copeland engineered the 1949 coup that bought Colonel Hosni Za'im to power as a means of breaking a political deadlock on Aramco's pipeline from its oil fields in Saudi Arabia to Sidon, Lebanon's Mediterranean port. When the unpopular Za'im was deposed in a British-backed countercoup just five months after taking power, Copeland left Syria and eventually landed in Egypt. There he played a significant role in resolving the 1956 Suez crisis, in which Britain and France secretly encouraged Israel to help them invade Egypt and get rid of Nasser. This enraged President Eisenhower, who threatened to tank the British pound by withholding loans essential to offsetting soaring oil prices.

Copeland's criticisms, mostly quoted from his memoir, of the various imperial bunglings he witnessed over his career, were pointed and resonant. Meyers and Brysac should have quoted their subjects more. For a book that purports to recover the "human" imprint of the Middle East's history through the eyes of individuals who were addicted to discursive memoranda and whose correspondence and memoirs are readily accessible, Kingmakers relies far too heavily on quotes from modern scholars. More unfortunately, Meyer and Brysac seem largely uninterested in pursuing a thesis of their own. A strong central framework might have given the book the connective tissue it lacks, or helped distinguish it from the masses of works that have already been written on the subject.

Admittedly, Meyer and Brysac do suggest (in a 13-page epilogue) an array of tropes - legal justifications for war; regime change; the practice of enlisting religious and ideological absolutists as allies; and the theory of indirect rule through a local puppet - as useful lenses for considering imperialist undertakings and their pitfalls. But it is not these concepts that animate the book. Instead, the authors seem drawn mostly to the glamour, eccentric personalities and cinematic sweep of the colonial Middle East. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Kingmakers exists mainly because of an enduring fascination with the Great Game as a western sport, albeit one with less-than-glorious results.

This is not to say that Meyer and Brysac advocate for imperialism. They remark in their prologue that their subjects were "driven time and again by lofty motives; inadequate information; feckless forethought; the influence of ambitious, forward party subordinates; and religious sentiment." They bemoan the tragic folly of America's most recent meddling in Iraq. And they do not overlook the central motivating role of oil and other natural resources in "civilizing" missions abroad.

What they don't seem to appreciate, however, is that any real understanding of the Middle East's imperial roots should involve recovering the mentalities not just of the kingmakers but also of the kings they made (or unmade, depending on the situation). This failure is particularly evident in their offhand treatment of Mohammed Mossadeq, the beloved Prime Minister of Iran who was ousted by the CIA in 1953 after he nationalized the nation's oil. Meyer and Brysac fail to make clear Mossadeq's great strengths as a natural leader. His personal charisma - which emanated, like Gandhi's, from a profound appreciation of both his own cultural traditions and grassroots democratic values - unified a coalition of political groups that were antipathetic to both the Pahlavi monarchy and the external interventions of the British.

In its patronising description of "Old Mossy", Kingmakers completely misses the tragic fact, powerfully conveyed by Stephen Kinzer in All the Shah's Men, that Mossadeq's unique character made him the one Iranian politician capable of leading Iran into peaceful coexistence with western democracy. This was in stark contrast to the US-backed Shah, whose modernisation putsch only succeeded in alienating his conservative rural population and empowering ayatollahs who might never have risen to power had Mossadeq not been deposed.

This oversight is particularly shocking given Meyer and Brysac's view, announced in the epilogue, that the events they catalogue are usefully understood through Britain's faith in indirect rule. This strategy - enunciated by Cromer, developed by Lugard and appropriated by Lawrence - consists of installing an indigenous candidate on a captive throne as a practical means of lowering occupation costs and at least superficially respecting ethnic and religious differences. Meyer and Brysac recognise that it often backfires, but they miss the opportunity to demonstrate why: in their search for "good" puppets, indirect rulers are, as a matter of course, prone to overlook good direct leaders, who are not prone to enjoy puppetry. Plus, even puppets can learn how to play the Great Game; a close examination of how this happens would have produced a much more useful book.

Kingmakers does briefly catalog the CIA's plot to support the Shah, thereby opening up Iranian oil to American companies and making the US the number one player in the Middle East. But they minimise the supreme irony that it was the Shah, the CIA's own "indigenous candidate", who led OPEC's decision to cease shipments of oil to America after it aided Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1973. This quadrupled oil prices, effected what Henry Kissinger called "the greatest transfer of wealth in modern history" and permanently altered the relationship between the rulers and the once-ruled. That Meyer and Brysac do not address the significance and roots of this power shift is one of the major weaknesses of their book.

An entire chapter - in fact, an entire book - could have been written on how Woodrow Wilson's brave new concept of self-determination became the friendly new disguise for the old colonial device of indirect rule at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. This was what earned the conference the cynical contempt of Italy's Prime Minister Orlando, not to mention the scorn of the people of the Middle East, who quickly saw through the sham. Instead of treating the conference like the watershed that it was, Meyersand Brysac scatter their discussion of it throughout their book, and dissipate the drama of the trifecta of climactic events that occurred there: the death of Mark Sykes - author of the Sykes-Picot treaty, which divided up much of the Middle East between the French and the British - after a futile trip to Cairo to quell the unrest that erupted there following the announcement of a Jewish homeland next door; Lawrence's political rebellion against the "old men" of the British foreign office, who he felt had betrayed his promises to Arab leaders; and the mysterious death of the Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn, who rivalled Chaim Weizmann (Britain's choice) for the leadership of post-war Palestine. Since Aaronsohn's death - in a bizarre plane accident that bore all the marks of a political assassination - is a case study in the consequences of resisting indirect rule, the omission of his name seems almost perverse.

Ultimately, Kingmakers suffers as much from its attitude as it does from its methodological failings and frequent overlooking of relevant facts. Judging from the number of Latin in-jokes and heavily embroidered classical allusions that appear to have dropped from High Table at Oxford, Meyers and Brysac sympathize with their kingmaking subjects as much as they try to condemn them. In their conclusion, they emulate Lawrence's preference for feeling over knowledge by implicitly calling for empathy over expertise in approaches to Middle Eastern politics. As they put it: "Empathy does not require special knowledge of distant lands... Decency and common sense can percolate upwards from ordinary witnesses to the region's travails."

But a chapter that sympathetically portrays Paul Wolfowitz as a "brilliant but broken chief promoter of a bad war" destroys Meyers and Brysac's credibility on this front. To paint Wolfowitz - who favored sticking the Iraqis with the cost of the American occupation that destroyed their country - as a man who cared deeply about their wellbeing inspires a shudder of revlusion. More importantly, to suggest that all we need is love in the Middle East runs the risk of perpetuating romantic and factually uninformed approaches to the region.

Patricia Goldstone is the author of Aaronsohn's Maps: The Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle East.