Middle East Treachery during World War I

Article excerpt


For political scientists, and especially academics, intelligence is the dark angel of foreign affairs, eager to topple governments and betray other persons - including allies - through stealth and lies. Oh, perhaps. The chronicles of spookdom certainly brim with case histories of chicanery. But in terms of flagrant international treachery, few episodes in diplomatic history surpass the sordid record of the allied powers - including the United States - in their dealings with Middle East nations during World War I, 1914-1918.

Much of what the average reader knows about intrigue during the period revolves around the British anthropologist-turned-intelligence-operative T.E. Lawrence, a covert agent for the Crown who strove to inspire the so-called Revolt in the Desert, an attempt to stir an Arabic uprising against Germany. Lawrence's image benefited from his own books and from an adoring biography by Lowell Thomas, the famed radio commentator.

But Lawrence was far from being the only intelligence agent in the game. The United States, Germany, France, even stateless Israelis trying to form their own nation, vied for influence among the disparate tribes that occupied Arabia. The goal was to wean away Turkish support for Germany during the first years of the war so as to protect Britain's routes to India.

Scott Anderson relates the story with vivid writing supported by a staggering amount of research - one of the more fascinating reads I have encountered in years. His cast of characters alone satisfies one's appetite for how espionage really works in the field.

Consider the United States. A latecomer to international intelligence, Washington, had no operatives in the area, so it sought the help of Standard Oil Co. of New York (Socony), one of 34 units into which the Rockefeller Standard Oil monopoly had been splintered in a 1911 antitrust action. Standard continued to harbor international ambitions, running a foreign-service school for men it dispatched abroad to monitor its interests.

Its recrui for the Middle East was a 20-ish chap named William Yale, scion of a prominent family that had fallen onto hard times. An Ivy League graduate, he joined Standard as an oil-field worker in Oklahoma. But his pedigree qualified him for grander things. Soon he was in Arabia, under cover with a group of wealthy swells making a grand tour.

Then he got down to business, buying oil rights for broad swaths of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. As the only major oil company still active in the area, Socony acquired rights for 500,000 acres at knock-off prices. Turkey desperately needed oil for its war effort. Tough: Standard furnished not a drop for the duration; its eyes focused on future riches. Socony sold to belligerents on both sides, reflagging tankers in neutral countries, the man responsible explaining to Yale that business was business, and that if he didn't 'sell to the enemy, his competitors surely would. …