Wednesday, March 25, 2015

WWI and the Middle East

Back in January, I had a chance to hear and meet Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia, at the Jaipur Literature Festival.  Now, as I finally get around to reading the book, I find myself jolted upright by many of its stories and observations.  Here’s a short section (from pages 150-152 in the book) about how an outlying corner of World War I came to symbolize something far larger.  I fear we also see in this section how the implications of those decisions went beyond that moment in history, being formative to the situation in which we find ourselves today.

A perverse mind-set had settled in among the warring European powers by that autumn of 1915.  To understand this mind-set, one had to appreciate the paralysis that held over the larger map of the war. [Here he describes the stalemate on all fronts and the loss of millions of lives.] Given this stunning lack of progress earned at such horrific cost, it might seem reasonable to imagine that the thoughts of the various warring nations would now turn to peace, to trying to find some way out of the mess.  Instead, precisely the opposite was happening.  

It’s a question that has faced peoples and nations at war since the beginning of time, and usually produced a terrible answer: in contemplating all the lives already lost, the treasure squandered, how ever to admit it was for nothing? Since such an admission is unthinkable, and the status quo untenable, the only option left is to escalate.  Thus among the warring states in Europe at the end of 1915 it was no longer a matter of satisfying what had brought them into the conflict in the first place—and in many cases, those reasons had been shockingly trivial—but to expand beyond them, the acceptable terms for peace not lowered, but raised.  The conflict was no longer about playing for small advantage against one’s imperial rivals, but about hobbling them forever, ensuring that they might never again have the capability to wage such a devastating and pointless war.  

But defeating one’s enemies is only half the game; for a war to be truly justifiable one has to materially gain.  In modern European custom, that need had been sated by the payment of war reparations into the victor’s coffers, the grabbing of a disputed province here or there, but that seemed rather picayune in view of this conflict’s costs. Instead, all the slaughter was to be justified by a new golden age of empire, the victors far richer, far grander than before. Naturally, this simply propelled the cycle to its logical, murderous conclusion. When contemplating all to be conferred upon the eventual winners, and all to be taken from the losers, how to possible quit now?

No, what was required was greater commitment—more soldiers, more money, more loss—to be redeemed when victory finally came with more territory, more wealth, more power. For the Entente powers of Great Britain, France, and Russia there really was only one place that offered the prospect of redemption on the scale required: the fractured and varied lands of the Ottoman Empire.
For all three powers, the war in the Middle East was now to become about satisfying their imperial cravings—desiderata, as it was politely known—they had long harbored.  (For Russia, Constantinople; for France, Syria; for Britain, the land approaches to India, its “jewel in the crown.)

Then there was the religious factor. All three of the principal Entente powers were devoutly Christian nations is 1915, and even after six hundred years it still grated on many that the Christian Holy land lay in Muslim hands.  In carving up the Ottoman Empire there was finally the chance to replay the Crusades to a happier ending.
There was a diplomatic need for the allies to codify these imperialist imperatives, leading to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. “In just a few days of meetings in early January 1916, two midlevel diplomats cobbled together a future map of the Middle East,” deciding how these lands were to be divided after the war.

On such arrogance and folly--and on such tenuous strands--were built the foundations for many of today’s problems in a contentious part of the world.

1 comment:

Robert J. Ciolek said...

From Facebook:

Read the book....interesting, learned a great deal and recommend it for anyone interested in the political roots of the present set of problems.