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Yesterday's Hero and Today's Middle East Turmoil
January 21, 2016 -- Intrigue. Deception. Double-crossing diplomats. Political machinations. Spies and counterspies. Espionage. Shattered promises and broken pacts. Backstabbing. Divided loyalties.
All the elements of a contemporary fiction thriller?
Yes, but the terms also describe Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Written by Scott Anderson, it's a real-life (and death) narrative of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East conflict during World War I. It focuses on the subtly interwoven stories of four key players: Aaron Aaronsohn, William Yale, Curt Prufer and T.E. (Thomas Edward) Lawrence, CB DSO, aka Lawrence of Arabia, the legendary figure who holds center stage in this fascinating biography.
Lawrence is known to all, but the others are also crucial to the tale. Aaronsohn, a Zionist agronomist, sets up a successful spy network in Palestine that the Turks eventually unmask. (Aaronsohn's sister, a brilliant spy in her own right, is among the operatives eventually executed by Turks.) Aaronsohn frequently engages in verbal duels with Chaim Weizmann, the renowned scientist and scholar who becomes the first president of Israel after World War II. William Yale is an American representative of Standard Oil. He also assumes an intelligence role for the U.S. State Department in conjunction with the British spy desk in Cairo. In the background, but definitely an influential player in the deadly game, is Curt Prufer, Germany's master spy in the region.
Although this wily quartet rarely interacts, they are definitely in pursuit of related military and political goals for the Imperial masters they serve. Their actions and decisions still reverberate today in a Middle East that is more unstable than it was during the Great War. Anderson's award-winning 2013 book depicts a migraine-inducing maze of intrigue populated by high-ranking military officers and senior diplomats with conflicting agendas and egos as regards the Sinai and Palestine campaign. The bewildering landscape is usually dominated by Captain Lawrence in his role as an intelligence officer based in Cairo. Lawrence labored tirelessly and with passion to get the feuding Arab tribes to work together.
The book covers Lawrence's strategic relationship with Prince Faisal of Syria, the third of four sons of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Grand Sharif of Mecca and a powerful tribal leader. As the classic David Lean motion-picture epic so vividly portrays, Lawrence dons Arabic garb and daringly rides into war with the fractious tribes. A century before the term became prevalent, Lawrence took "embedding" to an entirely new dimension.
Faisal's father believed the British when they promised Arab self-rule of what is basically today's Syria and the surrounding territories if the tribes revolted against the Ottoman Turkish Empire. However, British parliamentarian Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot already had clandestinely drafted a deal to divide the post-war Middle East and there would be no ruling role for the Arabs.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 redrew the map of the area that had been under Ottoman rule since the early 16th century. It created new nations and assigned these artificial political entities into two spheres of influence. Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine would be under British suzerainty. Syria and Lebanon would be under the French thumb.
Most of the tribesmen in Lawrence's so-called Arab Army revolted because, like Faisal, they believed they'd have the autonomy they were promised. But the Sykes-Picot Agreement saw the Arabs duped and their hopes of Arab leadership dashed. The British and French cynically utilized local rulers and drew the mostly straight map lines that define today's chaotic Middle East.
The map created by Sykes and Picot ignored vital tribal and religious differences and made an ungovernable jumble of competing forces such as the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds. Further complicating the ugly situation? A comment in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that professed British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
But let's get back to Lawrence, the putative superstar of this saga. In my mind's eye, I see a commanding figure, tall in the saddle, in flowing robes, leading the charge against the Turks. In other words, I see Peter O'Toole--and his piercing blue eyes--in the title role of Lean's 1963 Oscar-winning masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia.
The reality is quite something else. As accurately portrayed in Anderson's book, Lawrence is a mere 5-feet, 4-inches tall and slight of stature. The former archeologist and untrained soldier was painfully shy and occasionally mistaken for a teenager. Born in 1888, he was in his late 20s and early 30s during the war in the Middle East.
Despite his appearance, Lawrence was a ferocious warrior. Some attribute his battlefield brutality to his capture, torture and rape by a Turkish official. This event is described differently by Lawrence at different times and in different locales. (Some historians hint that Lawrence may have enjoyed it.) It also raised the issue of what has been described as Lawrence's repressed homosexuality. Anderson provides careful analysis of this aspect of Lawrence's personality, but declines to take a definitive position.
As history unfolds, Lawrence is torn by divided loyalties and ultimately betrayed and disavowed by his own country. Frustrated by his inability to convince the British government that Arab independence was in its best interest, the man whose commitment to the Arab cause might have changed the course of history left with the rank of colonel. Offered a knighthood in 1918, he not only turns it down, but literally walks out on the British Royal couple--a rarity in British history.
After the war, Lawrence worked for the Foreign Office, attending the Paris Peace Conference as a member of Prince Faisal's delegation. Depressed and suffering from what is now known as post-traumatic stress syndrome, he eventually wanted nothing to do with his former Arab allies. He spent most of 1921 serving as an advisor to Winston Churchill.
In 1922, using a fake name, he joined the Royal Air Force as an aircraftman, the RAF's lowest rank. His subterfuge was uncovered and he was sacked in 1923, but readmitted in 1925. His best-known published work, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, came in 1926. The autobiography features his war experiences as well as essays on military strategies, Arabian culture and related topics. Rewritten three times, the memoir includes incidents whose authenticity is disputed to this day.
If you think that the shattered and shifting Middle East and the exponential growth of worldwide terrorism are grounded in recent history, think again. It all traces back to Lawrence, the little-known Sykes-Picot treaty and the machinations of a small, obscure group of men bent on power and influence. And if you want to understand that time better, Scott Anderson's compelling account is a logical place to begin.
This column is Copyright © 2016 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.