The Road Already Taken
How the British colonialists tried to run the Middle East.

Reviewed by James Reston Jr.
Sunday, July 6, 2008


The Invention of the Modern Middle East

By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac

Norton. 507 pp. $27.95

The importance of Kingmakers for a wide American audience emerges slowly. At first, the book appears to be a quaint reminiscence of eccentric and often familiar British colonials of the early 20th century, strutting across Middle Eastern deserts in pith helmets, instructing the benighted native tribesmen about the fundamentals of governing. But as this beautifully written and researched book proceeds, it becomes abundantly clear that these skilled English soldier-diplomats are the progenitors of (and in some cases, role models for) the current crop of American diplomats and soldiers on the same turf. The issues that this country is now debating -- how to exit Iraq gracefully, how to protect American interests in the region after withdrawal, how to keep Arab insurgencies in check, how to continue the essential flow of oil, how to maintain American presence without the appearance of colonialism or occupation -- these issues have all been addressed before.

The authors make the relevance of their study clear at the outset. "History never repeats, but attitudes and arguments, dilemmas and excuses, clichés and delusions recur with the inevitability of a sun setting on successive empires." They refer to their work as "forgotten history." But it is history that is well-chronicled, and the authors draw copiously on the scholarship that has come before theirs.

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have organized their book into a gallery of colorful figures who played significant roles in the shaping of the Middle East in the wake of World War I. Some of these fascinating figures are well-known: T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, Gen. Charles George Gordon and Field Marshall H.H. Kitchener, Prime Ministers William Gladstone and David Lloyd George. But more weight and space are given to figures who are less famous: Sir Mark Sykes, Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson and "Jack" Philby, the fascinating father of the master spy Kim Philby. These were the key players in such pivotal events as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the Cairo Conference of 1921, events that set a course toward a Jewish homeland in Palestine and drew the lines of Iraq by joining the Mesopotamian provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul into an amorphous country. How Persia was carved up between British and Russian interests in the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907, how the countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon were created, is also covered. Just how arbitrary these boundary lines were, and how blatantly driven by English and French self-interest, is abundantly clear.

Perhaps more important than these extravagant personalities and the events they shaped are the principles that guided their "New Imperialism," most significant the idea of indirect rule, a doctrine that evolved from the experience of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa and Lord Lugard in central Africa, and was promoted by the London Times colonial editor, Flora Shaw, who was also Lugard's wife. In this doctrine, the British Empire sought to control a vast region of disparate, warring tribes by appointing and then "advising" Arab leaders and kings. This policy of "rent a sheik, buy an emir" was a mixed success at best, as the troubled experience with King Faisal of Iraq and King Saud of Saudi Arabia shows. The colonials faced a succession of Arab revolts and insurgencies in which their clients seemed to switch sides at will.

But indirect rule possesses an inherent contradiction, as Meyer and Brysac point out. "Though New Imperialism was justified as an agent of modernization, the British perpetuated existing hierarchies resistant to fundamental change. Moreover, since sultans and emirs owed their offices to foreigners and infidels, they forfeited their legitimacy, too often becoming demoralized or dissolute." How apt to the current American circumstance. If indeed the United States is going to establish some 50 permanent bases in Iraq and remain in that country for the next 100 years, the agents of American indirect rule might keep this warning in mind.

The book completes its gallery with portraits of three American, would-be kingmakers: CIA agents Kermit Roosevelt (who was behind the overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq) and Miles Copeland (who skulked throughout the Middle East), and former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz (a chief architect of the plan to invade Iraq). In contrast to the subtle British colonials who engaged with Arab culture down to its tribal roots, the Middle East of these American operatives seems to be merely an exotic playground where the prime instrument for regime change or control is bags of cash. Copeland's own words speak volumes: "We were innocent kids with new toys -- and a license to steal."

This is the least successful section of the book. But the paucity of good American subjects may be due to the fact that the American colonial era in the Middle East is only now beginning in earnest. American attention will shortly shift to the vocabulary of indirect control, of American proconsuls and high commissioners, zones of influence, mandate principles, protectorates and client states. This fine book lays an excellent foundation for thinking about the thorny next phase. ·

James Reston Jr.'s new work of history, "The Gates of Vienna: Suleiman the Magnificent and Islam's Near Supremacy in Europe," will be published next year.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company