Lawrence in Arabia

Article excerpt

For most of World War I, the American intelligence presence in the Middle East consisted of a 29-year-old man named William Yale, an employee of an oil company who had approached the State Department to see if he could avoid the draft by parlaying his experience in the region into an overseas posting. He'd observed the positions of Turkish military bases while traveling in the Ottoman Empire before America joined the war, but he was largely innocent of deeper knowledge of the region.

As he later wrote, "I lacked a historical knowledge of the background of the problems I was studying. I had ... very little understanding of the fundamental nature and function of the [regional] economic and social system." Undeterred by his lack of expertise, the State Department arranged for Yale to return to the Middle East as a special agent.

Yale is one of a quartet of scheming characters in Scott Anderson's new book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which seeks to remedy some of the American ignorance of Middle Eastern history that Yale represents.

Shortly after arriving in Cairo to begin his new posting, Yale managed to get access to a weekly British report called the "Arab Bulletin" that summarized sensitive intelligence gathered from around the Middle East. Yale, who was still receiving half of his former salary from the Standard Oil Company of New York, scanned the report for any references to oil.

He also broke his word to the British by communicating its contents to the US State Department. He justified his behavior by invoking the corrupting influence of living and working among "European and Oriental officials."

Despite a penchant for deception and bigotry, Yale isn't necessarily the most repugnant character in Anderson's book. Another strong contender is Aaron Aaronsohn, a botanist, anti-Ottoman spy, and ardent Zionist. These diverse roles were often complementary. He helped design and run a British-supervised spy ring in Palestine in part because the British were receptive to his dreams of a Jewish state in Palestine after the war.

His interest in agriculture was also political: to build a Jewish state in the desert would require an intimate knowledge of the soil conditions and crop varieties that could sustain a large population. Some Jews in the early 20th century saw Zionism as an anti-Semitic ruse, an attempt to suggest that Jews of various nationalities lacked loyalty to their homelands. Others envisioned Zionism as a peaceful mingling of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Aaronsohn, however, wanted to expel the "squalid, superstitious, ignorant" Palestinian serfs known as fellaheen to create a Jewish state. To promote this end, he and his British handlers launched a propaganda campaign. After both Jewish and non-Jewish residents of the town of Jaffa were evacuated by the Ottomans prior to an attack, Aaronsohn and the British disseminated alarmist accounts hinting darkly that Jews were the targets of atrocities. The attempt to rouse international panic and bolster the Zionist movement worked, though it also deflected attention from the hundreds of thousands of Armenians facing a Turkish genocide.

A third schemer of the period was the German spy Curt Prufer, who engineered elaborate plots to spark anti-British revolts in the Arab world. The idea of inflaming Arab tribes also appealed to the French and British. Suffering enormous losses on the Western front, they saw in the Middle Eastern theater the chance to win a desperately needed victory against the Ottoman Empire by inciting an Arab revolt.

But the agendas of two of Europe's most rapacious colonial powers aligned only imperfectly with the interests of Arab tribesmen. British officials actually referred to the Ottoman Empire as "the Great Loot," and well before the war had ended, France and Britain had already carved up the Middle East for themselves in the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement. …