Academic journal article Parameters

The Great War & the Middle East: A Strategic Study

Academic journal article Parameters

The Great War & the Middle East: A Strategic Study

Article excerpt

The Great War & the Middle East: A Strategic Study

By Rob Johnson

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Rob Johnson, in The Great War & the Middle East: A Strategic Study, challenges the conventional notion that great power meddling in the Middle Fast during World War I left poisonous legacies from which the region still struggles to recover. That history, or at least the version common in much of Europe and the Middle East today, posits that the British in particular, while trying to find local allies to help dismember the Ottoman Empire, made contradictory and dishonest promises to mutually contentious groups. These deals included the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) that carved much of the Middle East into French and British spheres of influence, the Husayn-McMahon correspondence (1915) that promised the Hashemites an expansive postwar Arab kingdom, and the Balfour Declaration (1917) that promised the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine.

This version of history places the blame for the tensions and violence of the region on the British and, by extension, the Zionists in Palestine whom the British allegedly favored to serve as their colonial agents. By creating artificial borders and working with questionable rulers, the British and French left the region too fractured and unstable to deal with the problems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Photographs of Islamic State bulldozers eradicating the Sykes-Picot borders graphically show the self-styled Caliphate erasing a shameful past imposed by foreign interference.

The book's thesis that World War 1 alone is not responsible for the region's many problems is certainly a valid and welcome one. Jewish-Arab tensions, the Sunni-Shia rivalry, and frustrations that bubbled up in the Arab Spring may have root causes dating to the war, but a great deal happened both before and since. Johnson, therefore, makes an important argument in trying to return agency to the Arabs themselves, riven as they were by internal rivalries, differing attitudes toward the British, and an inability to compromise.

Johnson outlines his thesis logically and reasonably in a solidly argued introduction. Having served in the British army in the Middle East, he has a sense of both the continuity and change in the region's endemic conflicts since 1914. He argues that the British came to the Middle East without a clearly articulated strategy to replace the Ottomans. …

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