Middle East Empire: The Prequel

By Hadar, Leon | The American Conservative, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Middle East Empire: The Prequel


Hadar, Leon, The American Conservative


Middle East Empire: The Prequel The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Jonathan Schneer, Random House, 464 pages

Good morning America! It's a new day in the Middle East as the Arab Spring-now the Arab Autumn-opens uncharted opportunities for the U.S. to shape the region and lay the foundations for liberal-democratic order, not to mention peace between Jews and Muslims.

But wait-haven't we seen this movie before? Like when President George W. Bush liberated Iraq, promoted his Freedom Agenda in the Middle East, and insisted that the road to (peace in) Jerusalem led through (American occupied) Baghdad?

Or when President Clinton was hoping to negotiate a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians and integrate a New Middle East into the then booming global economy?

Or when the first President Bush celebrated the defeat of Iraqi aggression in Kuwait and convened Arabs and Israelis in Madrid for a peace conference, trying to bring the region into a New World Order?

President Barack Obamas attempts to ally the U.S. with the spirit of Tahrir Square may be Pax Americana's latest sequel. But as historian Jonathan Schneer clarifies in The Balfour Declaration, striving for hegemony in the Middle East was not an original American production. It was the Brits who wrote the first script for this story.

From the British imperial project in the Middle East in the early 20th century-which is the subject of The Balfour Declaration-to the American hegemonic undertaking in the region a hundred years later, Anglo-Americans have tried again and again to make and remake the Middle East in the way that would advance their geo-political interests and correspond to their grand ideals.

Impelled by its strategic interests, the smell of oil, and religious sentiment Great Britain invaded the Middle East during the Great War, allying itself with the forces of Jewish and Arab nationalism and other self-interested and ambitious players. Eventually the British found themselves sucked into a military and diplomatic quagmire, betraying their allies and being betrayed by them. As the costs of the imperial project became intolerable in the after-math of World War II, the Brits passed hegemonic responsibilities in the region to the Americans.

This saga has also provided journalists with great material. Schneer spins a good yarn out of this chapter on modern Middle East history as he recounts the dramatic behind-the-scenes negotiations and intrigues in the early 1900s that led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and to the rise of Great Britain as the regions dominant power.

With an eye for detail and the creativity of an espionage-thriller writer, Schneer, a scholar at Georgia Tech's School of History, has produced an informative and entertaining historical epic that stars a cast of characters-British imperialists, Zionist lobbyists, Arab warriors, Levantine conspirators, and an array of larger-than-life spies, schemers, and adventurers-that would make John Buchan green with envy.

In fact, Buchan modeled Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of his thriller Green-mantle, after one of the historical characters depicted by Schneer, Audrey Herbert. "Tall and slim, with thick, wiry, untamable hair that turned gray during the war, an aquiline nose, and gray, heavy eyes, he explored the Middle East and the Balkans as a young man, gaining a reputation for bravery, kindness, eccentricity, and dash even among the Albanian bandits who be-friended him-and yet he was nearly blind," is the way Schneer describes him.

Despite being nearly blind, Herbert joined the British army at the outbreak of the war. He was captured and wounded during the fighting in Europe, and after his rescue and recovery, accepted a posting to Egypt as an intelligence officer, where he favored the Arab revolt against the Turks while working behind the scenes to arrange peace between Britain and the Ottomans. …

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