Consequences be Damned: Solving 20th Century Problems with 19th Century Disregard
As the world watches the 2014 iteration of the Middle East conflict observers should remember that history is continuous rather than episodic. The preponderance of glimpses into the past are distilled into cause and consequence analyses that typically oversimplify and all too often mislead. The history concerning World War I has certainly suffered from this error. For example, World War I has been described by some 20th century historians as “the first calamity of the twentieth century, the Great War, from which all other calamities sprang.”[i] This assertion seems reasonable, since many subsequent conflicts, including the recent Gaza crisis, can trace roots to the failed diplomatic conflict resolution efforts of the post-World War I era. However, many of the troubles in the 20th century, including the current conflict in Gaza, were preexisting conditions from the 19th century that were exacerbated by the Great War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Failures of conflict resolution in 1918 did not sow the seeds for future conflict – failure implies an effort or an attempt. Indeed, Allied leaders failed to try to resolve the actual problems that would go on to become the foundations of later regional conflicts. They approached 20th century problems with 19th century disregard. This failure – particularly with respect to the Middle East – was the result of perceived national priorities, rivalry among the victors, and their disdain or willful ignorance, regarding the fundamental issues central to the lands they planned to dominate.
As noted historian David Fromkin explains, “(WWI) was a war for control of continental Europe, not for Empire in Asia or Africa,” thus “European issues were given a high and other issues a relatively low, priority.”[ii] How to treat unrepentant Germans was the first priority at Versailles. Their withdrawal order on 11 November was filled with rhetoric describing an “undefeated and tested” German army that was merely “terminating… the war in enemy country” and departing “with unbroken ranks.”[iii] This unapologetic attitude brought an air of uncertainty to the treaty negotiations since it was not clear that hostilities were truly over until the Germans signed the treaty on 28 June 1919. Until then, Allies were understandably cautious, as demonstrated by military orders such as the American Expeditionary Force’s Field Order Number 9 from 17 June titled: “Plans in case Germany refuses to sign Peace treaty.”[iv] It is clear, and reasonable, that before concrete progress could be made on other issues, the central question of the German threat had to be resolved. Unfortunately, once the proximate German threat had been removed, much of the motivation for unified effort to resolve the remaining issues began to disintegrate.[v]
Once the specter of renewed “Bosche” hostilities was gone, the remaining negotiations were set against a backdrop of the more complex problem of burgeoning Bolshevism in the former Russian Empire. In the post-conflict era this threat shaped or influenced decisions more as a reaction to ideological fear than physical threat. This fear of Bolshevism predated the end of the war and permeated many British ministerial offices to some degree, affecting decisions with dubious relevance. As an example, “the Foreign Office,” Fromkin relates, “hoped the Balfour Declaration (of 1917) would help swing Russian Jewish support to the Allied side and against Bolshevism.”[vi] The statement demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the complexity of Jewish national identity, religion, and ideology.[vii] That British forces were only withdrawn from Central Asia once anti-Bolshevik White Russian forces moved into the area in April 1919, six months after the war ended, is another example of their anxiety.[viii] Bolshevism would remain an influence for quite a while.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s top aide, Maurice Hankey, would later opine that “in the coming years Bolshevism was the greatest danger….”[ix] British actions in Afghanistan confirmed this perception in May 1919, when Amanullah Khan began to agitate against India in order to secure an independent Afghanistan under his leadership. The British thought “the Great Game” had been resolved in 1907, but the Russian Revolution and its potential influence on Afghan nationalism resurrected tensions.[x] As Amanullah’s forces moved into India, the fear that Bolshevism would spread into the crown jewel of the British Empire spurred a £14.7 million defense spending increase (for that month alone), an amount that David Fromkin asserts the British “could ill afford.”[xi] After airpower led to British victory, the Treaty of Rawalpindi granted Afghans independence in their foreign affairs.[xii] They promptly signed treaties with the Bolsheviks – further unnerving the British.[xiii] For the British in particular, the fear of Russian Bolshevism was never ameliorated. Fear became a bogeyman that tainted many of their perceptions and decisions in the years to follow, distracting them from the traditional balance of power politics that had dominated Europe for decades, and stunting the fostering of a general comity in Europe and its spheres of influence. This “red scare” prevented the British from seeing regional problems with clarity, even ones they had anticipated for generations.
The demise of the “sick man of Europe” had long been anticipated. The fundamental question – one posed since Napoleon’s era – was what form should a post-Ottoman Middle East take? Indeed, European designs on what would become the remnants of the Ottoman Empire began “at least a century before the Great War.”[xiv] As David Fromkin points out, Europeans foresaw, even tried to hasten, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, but they failed to forge a unified plan that could withstand mounting domestic pressures, even as they occupied Middle Eastern territories.[xv] He says that, “the establishment of Allied control in the Middle East marked the climax of Europe’s conquest of the rest of the world,” it was a short-lived apogee that renewed Anglo-French rivalry over territorial claims.[xvi]
Allied cohesion began deteriorating shortly after the Germans signed the treaty of Versailles. As the ‘peace’ dragged on, domestic pressures spurred governments to lay claim to larger tracts of land and more resources, while simultaneously calling for reductions in troop commitments due to war weariness and fiscal strain. Competition for territorial gains eventually degraded into uncooperative rivalry, which helped blind all parties to the complex conditions in the territories they sought to claim. Oxford historian and great-granddaughter of Lloyd George, Margaret MacMillan succinctly noted that, “The main Italian concern… was to ensure that France did not get anything that Italy did not.”[xvii] Likewise, Fromkin observed, “If Britain made territorial gains, France would insist on matching them.”[xviii] This led to what journalist David Andelman described as “a mad dash for territory (and oil) at the point of a gun,” primarily into the remains of the Ottoman Empire.[xix] All while the Allies faced the looming problem of dwindling economic resources and a public increasingly wary of troop commitments.[xx]
MacMillan points out that French claims on Syria and Palestine dated back to the crusades, yet the British had engineered the region’s ‘liberation’ and subsequent occupation. [xxi] As such, the British sought to control a larger share of the region under the pretext of Arab nationalism and a Jewish haven.[xxii] Georges Clemenceau defended French claims to the region by proclaiming, “French public opinion expected a settlement that was consonant with France’s position,” and called Lloyd George a “cheat.”[xxiii] The resulting diplomatic war led the leaders to seek an American Mandate over Constantinople and Armenia in order to facilitate future negotiations in 1919.[xxiv]
Unfortunately for the Europeans, they failed to accurately assess the extent of the American (and to a certain extent their own) public’s isolationism, while delaying resolution of treaties until 1920 when they hoped President Wilson would secure an American commitment to a Mandate. In the meantime, the lack of Anglo-French cooperation in the Middle East had strengthened the position of Arab nationalists in Syria, leading General Edmund Allenby to warn “…we shall be dragged by the French into a war which is against our own interests and for which we are ill-prepared.”[xxv] By May 1920, President Wilson’s failure to capture an increasingly isolationist American public’s support for treaty enforcement efforts in the Middle East was complete. His failure led to a shift in diplomatic fortunes for the British. As Fromkin put it, “The breakdown of his American ally drove Lloyd George to make peace with France and Italy; but the British Prime Minister found that he now had to contend with allied leaders with whom it was far less easy to deal.”[xxvi] The result was the withdrawal of British support in the now French region of Syria, which allowed France to use airpower to reduce Arab opposition, securing French territorial claims over people whom they did not understand.[xxvii]
While European leaders coveted the lands of the Middle East, they never truly understood the fundamental religious, ethnic, cultural, and economic issues of the region. Fromkin notes “Decisions were made with little knowledge of, or concern for, the lands and peoples about which and whom the decisions were being made.”[xxviii] He continues, “Ten-thousand people came to the (Versailles) peace conference,” but in the end decisions were made by, as Balfour stated, “Three all-powerful, all-ignorant men, sitting there and carving up continents, with only a child to lead them (a disparaging reference to Maurice Hankey).”[xxix] European leaders never tried to gain any deeper understanding of the Middle East.[xxx] Even Lord Balfour did not make his first visit to Palestine until 1925.[xxxi] They failed to heed the warnings of experts like Gertrude Bell who predicted the general crux of the region’s conflicts, and Lord Nathaniel Curzon who prophetically advised: “I am so convinced that Palestine will be a rankling thorn in the flesh of whoever is charged with its Mandate, that I would withdraw from this responsibility while we still can.”[xxxii] Likewise, with regard to Egypt, Fromkin asserts that British leaders “persuaded themselves at the outset that the Arabic-speaking peoples preferred British rule to any other.”[xxxiii]
The introduction of Zionists to Palestine is the greatest example of the ignorance of and the utter disregard for the concerns of the people whom European leaders claimed to control. The Middle East was full of conflicts that long predated European interest in the region. Within the Arab “ethnicity” alone, differences in culture, religion, and sect led to clashes – many of which were exacerbated by economic disparities.[xxxiv] British leadership persisted in advocating for Zionist efforts to gain a homeland in Palestine, against the advice of their own experts and in spite of the report of the Crane-King Commission that Arabs in Palestine were, “emphatically against the entire Zionist program.”[xxxv] This ignorance was driven in part by Anglo-French rivalries. Lloyd George, according to former British Prime Minister Henry Asquith, supported the Zionist cause in order to avoid letting “the Holy Places pass into the possession or under the protection of ‘agnostic and atheistic’ France.”[xxxvi] European plans concerning their new possessions clearly did not rest upon solid geopolitical realities.
The British vision for a Jewish home depended on the principle of controlled Jewish immigration. In 1921, Winston Churchill claimed that, “no Jew will be brought in beyond the number who can be provided for by the expanding wealth and development of the resources of the country.”[xxxvii] In reality, the numbers did not support that claim. As Andelman reports, “in 1800 there were 5,000 Jews and 250,000 Arabs in Palestine… by 1922 the Jewish population… (was) up to 84,000, constituting 11 percent of the population.”[xxxviii] Fromkin plainly condemns British leadership’s lack of judgment: “The British government, on the other hand, misjudged not merely the depth but also the nature of the Arab response… Churchill and his colleagues either misunderstood or pretended to misunderstand the real basis of Arab opposition to Zionism.”[xxxix]
Arab opposition manifested itself in the spring of 1920 in the form of riots, looting, and killing – reactions that persist today. Halfhearted as they may have been, the British army’s efforts to quell the violence led to British deaths.[xl] Arab raiding parties and uprising complicated administration, increasing costs. As early as 7 August 1920 The Times began asking, “how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour (sic) to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?”[xli] By 1922, Fromkin observes, “The principal British fantasy about the Middle East – that it wanted to be governed by Britain, or with her assistance – ran up against a stone wall of reality.”[xlii]
David Andelman understatedly assesses the European leaders’ efforts thusly: “Colossal errors of judgment that were to emerge from Paris and the Peace Conference, eventually turning the Middle East into the breeding ground for violence it has become today.”[xliii] To call them “errors of judgment” is kind. It is clear that European leaders were not ignorant of the violence and unrest their decisions caused. It is also clear from their failure to discontinue their efforts, or even remediate the problems in a meaningful way, that they simply did not care.
The national boundaries of Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel all sprang from the maps of French and British diplomats in the aftermath of the Great War.[xliv] Yet the beginnings of the cultural, economic, ethnic, political, and religious problems that plague the region to this day predate the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.[xlv] In a description of Iraq that seems eerily modern, if politically incorrect, British Captain C.D. Brunton captured the situation with an ironically disdainful British perspective,
The people here do not form a homogeneous political entity. There is a sharp line of division between the settled population and the Bedouin. The former wish settled government and protection from the extortions and violence of the latter. The Bedouin prefer anarchy to order as they live from extortions from peasantry and rapine as well as from their flocks and herds. You cannot expect them to form a government for their common country.[xlvi]
Brunton demonstrates clearly that there was understanding, likely shared by many British officers, of the fragmentation the European scheme of arbitrary borders caused. That he was disregarded is emblematic of willful ignorance born of imperialist hubris. Regional concerns were no concern to leaders armed with the latest technology and focused on domestic pressures and international threats.
The coalition fatality figures for the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are 4,804 and 3,460 respectively.[xlvii] As of 21 July, the butcher’s bill for the 2014 Gaza conflict was more than 550 Gazans, 25 Israeli soldiers, and two Israeli civilians killed.[xlviii] ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) militants issued an ultimatum on 18 July that Mosul Christians “one of the oldest communities of its kind in the world… had until noon Saturday to leave the city.”[xlix] The unstated, but well understood threat being that they would be killed. These recent events can trace their roots back to the results of post-World War I conflict resolution endeavors, but it is incorrect to say that they represent the failure of those efforts. Leaders like Clemenceau and Lloyd George did not fail – they did not try. They ignored the roots of problems in territories they were too anxious to claim, because the solutions ran counter to their national interests. As America looks to resolve ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it will undoubtedly look for solutions that are in accordance with its priorities. It would be wise to remain mindful that the crises deemed in the ‘national interest’ today were founded in an era where great powers acted in their interests and dismissed the concerns of millions. In the aftermath of the Great War solutions to deep-seated problems were ignored because they were against the interests of those with the power to solve them. America must avoid addressing 21st Century problems with the same 19th century disregard.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
[i] Fritz Stern, as quoted in David Fromkin, Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (Random House LLC, 2007) 6.
[ii] Fromkin, Europe's Last Summer, 278; David Fromkin. A Peace to End all Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Macmillan, 2001) 391.
[iii] German Field Order No. 12257 as reprinted by the United States Department of the Army, United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919: American Occupation of Germany – Volume 11. (United States Government Printing Office, 1948) 475.
[iv] U.S. Department of the Army, United States Army in the World War, 120-127.
[v] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 389.
[vi] Ibid., 298.
[vii] Completely ignoring the existence and influence of Jewish Bolsheviks like Lev Kamenev and Leon Trotsky.
[viii] Ibid., 360. He relates that Russian General Denikin was initially ordered to the area to confront Ottoman and German forces, but ended in blocking the Bolsheviks. Fromkin claims the threat from all three was indistinguishable to the British in the latter part of the war.
[ix] Ibid., 404.
[x] Ibid., 421.
[xi] Ibid., 422. While Fromkin is likely right in asserting that the 1919 £14.7 million increase was significant in that region and year’s context, it pales next to the previous year’s total defense outlays of £2.4 billion. In the wake of the Great War it is also possible that, to anyone paying attention to fiscal matters, this expense was perceived more as a reduction in savings than an increase in costs. See: http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/year_spending_1918UKmn_13mc1n_30#ukgs302. (A fascinating tool that has British budgetary data going back to 1692 based on public records.)
[xii] Ibid., 423.
[xiv] Ibid., 558.
[xv] Fromkin, Europe's Last Summer, 260.
[xvi] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 558.
[xvii] Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (Random House LLC, 2007), 422.
[xviii] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 521.
[xix] David A. Andelman, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price we Pay Today (John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 50, 62.
[xx] MacMillan, Paris 1919, 450. Along with Fromkin’s economic alarm above, MacMillan asserts that France was also fiscally constrained, unable to afford 500 million francs per year for occupation of Asia Minor by 1922.
[xxi] MacMillan, Paris 1919, 419.
[xxii] Andelman, A Shattered Peace, 90-98.
[xxiii] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 396.
[xxiv] Ibid., 398.
[xxv] Ibid., 438.
[xxvi] Ibid., 398-399.
[xxvii] Ibid., 438.
[xxviii] Ibid., 400.
[xxix] Ibid.; Lord Balfour as quoted in MacMillan, Paris 1919, 435.
[xxx] Andelman, A Shattered Peace, 45.
[xxxi] MacMillan, Paris 1919, 425.
[xxxii] Ibid., 400, 424.
[xxxiii] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 417.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 445-450, 522, 564; Andelman, A Shattered Peace, 46.
[xxxv] Charles Crane and Henry King as quoted in MacMillan, Paris 1919, 423.
[xxxvi] As quoted in Andelman, A Shattered Peace, 88.
[xxxvii] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 520.
[xxxviii] Andelman, A Shattered Peace, 107.
[xxxix] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 523.
[xl] Ibid., 452. Fromkin (as well as MacMillan) gives some credence to Palestinian Jews’ questioning of the sincerity of British Officers’ peacekeeping efforts in 1920.
[xli] As quoted in Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 452.
[xlii] Ibid., 420.
[xliii] Andelman, A Shattered Peace, 40.
[xliv] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace,528.
[xlv] Fromkin, Europe's Last Summer, 9-10.
[xlvi] Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace, 443.
[xlviii] Jodi Rudoren,“ Israel Is Facing Difficult Choice in Gaza Conflict,” The New York Times (online edition), 21 July 2014, accessed 22 July 2014 <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/22/world/middleeast/israel-gaza-conflict.html?_r=0>
[xlix] Alissa J. Rubin,“ISIS Forces Last Iraqi Christians to Flee Mosul,” The New York Times (online edition), 18 July 2014, accessed 22 July 2014 <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/world/middleeast/isis-forces-last-iraqi-christians-to-flee-mosul.html>