From the beginning of America’s direct strategic involvement in the Middle East, immediately following World War I, cogent advice abounded about how the region should be treated. Col. Edward M. House, the close friend and adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, warned that a peace based on the old game of Western imperialism, however artfully disguised rhetorically, would make the Middle East a breeding place for future war. Col. T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) and Gertrude Bell, two of the most informed Middle East experts at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, made the same argument, adding that the Arabs would have to be taken into account in the new dispensation, or there could never be peace. Why their cogent advice and that of many others in the fateful postwar era should have lost out to the policies and strategies that carried the day in the Middle East down to our own time constitutes an historical problem about what, if not cogency, determines policy in foreign affairs.
The King-Crane Report of 1919, the most famous document of the postwar era to address Middle East issues (see June/July 2014 Washington Report, p. 18), prophetically warned about permanent war and chaos in the region if the victors at the peace conference ignored the national aspirations of the Arabs.
Earlier that year, Wilson had attempted to send another team of investigators to the Middle East, to be led by James L. Barton, a former missionary in Turkey and the head of post-war Near East Relief, and Frederic C. Howe, a former student of the president and a leading progressive reformer of the pre-World War I era. Barton and Howe were supposed to meet in Constantinople and then proceed to Syria and Asia Minor. Their report, however, never materialized. Howe fell ill in Brindisi, Italy, on his way to their rendezvous. Sick and discouraged, he returned to Paris. Barton did not undertake any commission-related investigation on his own.
Yet the unsuccessful Barton-Howe Commission had an important afterlife in the writings of the two principals. Their reflections on the post-war experiences that they had in connection with the Middle East constitute an important part of the historical record for the background of today’s worsening crises in the region. Unlike the intellectually and politically compatible King and Crane, Barton and Howe held sharply contrasting views about what then was taking place in the Middle East. The imagination falters in trying to envisage any element of agreement that might have emerged in a report written by the two of them. Individually, however, they subsequently made observations about the Middle East important for understanding the first causes of today’s tragedy in the region.
Cogent advice lost out to the policies and strategies that carried the day.
Fresh from six months of travel there, Barton in 1920 contributed a largely autobiographical essay to William H. Hall’s The Near East Crossroads of the World. He had nothing at all to say about the two most important post-war Middle East issues, oil and Zionism. Instead, he focused on the manifold glories of Britain’s imperialist record “in organizing, training, and controlling native alien populations.” The British had an enviable record of success in ruling both African and Asiatic peoples. Their achievements as colonial masters made Britain his second choice among all the countries under consideration as the League of Nations mandatory power in the Middle East following the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
First place in Barton’s rankings went easily to the United States. On this point, he cited the King-Crane Report, which he praised for its “most painstaking investigation.” King and Crane thought that, ideally, Wilson’s principle about the self-determination of peoples should be the rule for deciding the fate of the Arabs. Having seen enough of the realpolitik of the Paris Peace Conference to understand that an imperialist obsession with territories, markets and resources would trump all ideals about the self-determination of peoples, the commissioners fell back to the American option as the best practical answer to the question of which nation should serve as the mandatory power in the Middle East.
Barton, however, viewed the American mandate as the ideal solution for the Arabs. The rival and contending groups in the region, he wrote, “seem to be agreed that America is their friend, has no desire for annexations or permanent control, and no ulterior motives except to serve the people, to secure for them safety, justice, and prosperity, and put them upon the high road to self-government. Their love and confidence in the United States is almost pathetic.” The historical process by which the love and confidence of the Arabs were lost to the American people constitutes the prologue to our present dilemmas in the Middle East.
In his 1925 memoir, Confessions of a Reformer, Howe presented a very different assessment of the United States and the Middle East in the postwar period. Indeed, the book is a study of his loss of faith in the progressive political creed. Howe had believed in the power of government to do good for the people and had devoted his life to the exercise of that belief. The Paris Peace Conference, however, shocked him into an awareness of what governments actually did. In Paris he claimed to have discovered the deepest and truest secret about politics—all politics, foreign and domestic, past and present: “The world was ruled by an exploiting class that ruled in the interest of the things it owned.” There really was nothing more complicated about politics and foreign policy than that.
Howe had come to Paris still hoping for the triumph of Wilsonian idealism, but the treaty mocked the anti-militarist and anti-imperialist values in Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Contrary to various legends about the Paris Peace Conference, the United States had failed to make a valiant fight against the rapacity and cupidity alleged to be peculiarly Old World vices. Howe continued to treat Wilson himself with respect and affection, but “a thousand cross-currents confused and exhausted him,” not all of them coming from the Europeans. New York and Washington contributed as well to his undoing. In Paris, “Our State Department was thinking in terms of oil in Mesopotamia, of oil in Mexico, of gold and railroads in Haiti and Santo Domingo.” American elites conformed to the rule of imperialist exploitation, when they did not exceed it. “I had seen the government at close range with its mask off,” Howe declared; “it existed for itself and the hidden men behind it, as the realists in Paris had said.”
Of all the lands bartered, sold and sold-out at the peace conference, those in the Middle East best justified a feeling of pessimism about the future of peace in the world, according to Howe. He had been an avid student of Middle East affairs ever since his student days at the University of Munich, where he had learned how important the resources of the region were for German industrial might. The Baghdad-Berlin Railway had been a major source of discord between Germany and Britain. Their competition in the Middle East seemed to him a prime example of how imperialist rivalries had led to the Great War.
Serving unofficially on the American Peace Commission, Howe urged Wilson to treat the issues in the Middle East with extreme care. When the president asked him to undertake a Middle East assignment with Barton, Howe prepared for his trip by studying the secret treaties the Allies had drawn up among themselves as a blueprint for the distribution of spoils at war’s end. He finished his study of these documents, all utterly destitute of any references to peace or democracy or anti-militarism—or to anything non-vendible— firm in the conviction that they contained the fundamental explanation about why the war had been fought: to give the Allies, Britain chief among them, economic control of the world. The Middle East took precedence over all the other places on earth as the centerpiece of the plans not merely outlined in the secret treaties, but lavishly, most tellingly illustrated in them.
Howe thought that two documents in particular, both pillars of the post-war establishment in the Middle East, defined the realpolitik limits of the future for the Arabs: the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) and the Balfour Declaration (1917), both of which had the effect of arranging land transfers from the Ottoman Empire in flagrant violation of Wilson’s self-determination-of-peoples principle. He noted the essential points of the new order in the Middle East: “France took Syria, England Mesopotamia. Palestine went to the Jews.” The Arabs received nothing.
One legacy of the decisions taken at the Paris Peace Conference is on appalling display today in Gaza, which illustrates the continuity and discontinuity of Middle East history. Howe’s insights account for the continuity of Arab exploitation and degradation at the hands of the triumphant imperialist forces in 1919. The almost pathetic Arab love for and confidence in the United States, as reported by Barton, vanished long ago and became its opposite, for reasons exemplified by the Gaza tragedy.
In that stricken place, though not for the first time, the star-crossed Palestinian people have found in the United States the ultimate source of their national tragedy. Without the support of its American ally, Israel would lack the military, economic and diplomatic resources needed to maintain its cruel and scandalous occupation of Palestinian territories. The morally bankrupt blockade of Gaza and now Israel’s wanton murder of civilians there could be stopped by a stern word from Washington, if that place were capable of uttering one that seriously presaged an agonizing reappraisal of relations with Tel Aviv. The formerly weak American market for ideas promoting the respectful treatment of the Arabs now, in the wake of the unanimous Senate vote in effect supporting the terror bombardment of defenseless Palestinian civilians, achieves the condition of absolute nullity.
Richard Drake is the author of The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013). For information about the book, click here.
For a downloadable PDF version of this article as it appeared in the October 2014 WASHINGTON REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS, click here.