During World War I, politicians, generals and diplomats across Europe recognized that the vast territories controlled by the Ottoman Empire offered strategic advantages in the death struggle consuming Europe, as well as the prospect of imperial expansion when the war ended.

Scott Anderson’s “Lawrence in Arabia” ably recounts the political and military decisions that shaped events in the region bounded roughly by the Mediterranean, modern-day Turkey, the Red Sea, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. As the title suggests, Anderson focuses on the activities of T.E. Lawrence, but this is not just another biography of the enigmatic scholar turned soldier, whose involvement in the Arab Revolt has been immortalized in David Lean’s magnificent film “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Anderson begins his account in the years before the war, when Germany was looking to exploit any potential weakness in Britain’s vast colonial domain, the British were moving to strengthen their hold on Egypt and the Suez Canal, and American oil companies were prospecting for new fields in lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Recounting these years, Anderson introduces us to a cast of characters almost as fascinating as Lawrence, including German diplomat Curt Prüfer, American oilman William Yale and Romanian agronomist and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn.

The outbreak of war intensified intrigues that were already underway. Prüfer hoped to unite the indigenous Muslim population against the British and the French, but his efforts collapsed after Emir Hussein of Mecca raised an Arab army to revolt against the Turks. Yale continued to prospect for oil before gravitating to the State Department after America entered the war. At great personal risk, Aaronsohn operated a spy network in Turkish-controlled territory that, before its discovery, provided Britain with valuable intelligence. After escaping from Palestine, Aaronsohn joined forces with British Zionist Chaim Weizmann and embraced the Balfour Declaration as the basis for a Jewish state in Palestine.

Anderson is harshly critical of Mark Sykes, the dilettante British diplomat who in January 1916 concocted a plan for Britain to divide Ottoman territories with France at the end of the war. The Anglo-French accord contradicted assurances to Emir Hussein that he would rule over most of the region. Instead of providing a road map for a postwar Anglo-French imperium, the treaty set European and Arab interests on a collision course that led to decades of instability. Sykes, Anderson asserts, either didn’t understand or didn’t care about the consequences. “Few people in history,” Anderson concludes, “have so heedlessly caused so much tragedy.”

‘Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East’ by Scott Anderson (Random House)

As for Lawrence, an early fascination with archaeology led him to the ruins of the ancient city of Carchemish in northern Syria, but the outbreak of war forced him to abandon his study of the past. After working as a cartographer for the Imperial General Staff in London, he was sent to Cairo, where his fluency in Arabic and detailed knowledge of the region helped make him perhaps the most important figure in the Allied war effort in the Middle East.

In March 1916, he bargained, unsuccessfully, for an end to the Turkish siege of Kut on the Tigris River, one of the most ignominious defeats suffered by Britain during the war. Dispatched to the Arabian Peninsula in October of that year, he identified Faisal ibn Hussein, Emir Hussein’s third son, as the best potential leader of the uprising against the Turks. He led the capture of the Red Sea port of Aqaba by the Arab army, hastened its move north into Damascus and championed the Arab cause after the war.

Anderson cuts through legend and speculation to offer perhaps the clearest account of Lawrence’s often puzzling actions and personality. Ultimately, he concludes, Lawrence put the interests of the armies with which he was riding ahead of the uniform he wore back in Cairo. He shared with Faisal his knowledge of the secret Anglo-French treaty. To scuttle it, he urged the attack on Aqaba as a means of getting the Arab army north into Syria, before the French could arrive. When he planned a raid to blow up railroad bridges in the Yarmuk Gorge, deep in Turkish-controlled Syria, he confessed to a friend that he was undertaking the dangerous mission out of a sense of obligation to the Arabs.

Anderson also convincingly explains Lawrence’s legendary personality quirks. His capacity to endure hardship and pain developed during a troubled childhood in which he learned to suffer through severe beatings at the hand of his mother without showing any discomfort. He delighted in irritating his army superiors, loathed military culture and advertised his contempt for it whenever possible. And Anderson concludes that his rape and torture in the railroad town of Deraa, where he was captured but mistaken as a Circassian deserter from the Turkish army in November 1917, caused lifetime psychological damage.

Hussein, Feisal and Djemal Pasha, the Turkish governor of Syria, also figure prominently in Anderson’s narrative. But if there is any criticism to be made of this book it would be that Arab voices and aspirations play a secondary role in what is, after all, the story of their emergence from colonial rule. Nevertheless, Anderson has produced a compelling account of Western hubris, derring-do, intrigue and outright fraud that hastened — and complicated — the troubled birth of the modern Middle East.

Robert Mitchell is an editor with The Washington Post-Bloomberg News Service.


War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

By Scott Anderson

Doubleday. 577 pp. $28.95