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
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
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. …