The new crusaders from the United States and Europe, along with their Arab auxiliaries, gather again in the Middle East. But their chances of a lasting victory are slim.
No matter what happens to Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein, there will be no peace in the area until the world faces up to these historical facts: The West lied to the Arabs in the First World War; it promised them independence but then imposed imperial mandates; this ensured Arab disunity at the very moment when the West created the state of Israel.
In January 1919, Paris was a city of pomp and splendor. The most ghastly war in history had ended two months earlier in triumph for the Allies: Britain, France and the United States.
Now diplomats from these countries, grave, impressive men flanked by their military advisers, had arrived for the peace conference that would decide the fate of Germany and divide the spoils of victory.
Each night the best Paris hotels, ablaze with light from their grand chandeliers, buzzed with conversation and laughter as the delegates relaxed after their duties. In this colorful, cosmopolitan gathering, one delegate stood out. Restaurants grew quiet when he entered, and there was much be hind-the-scenes jostling to meet him.
For this was T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," the young Englishman who had helped per suade the Arabs to revolt against their Turkish masters, who were allies of Germany. This was the brilliant intelligence officer who had welded the warring tribes of the Middle East into a formidable guerrilla force.
This sounded sufficiently romantic in itself, but it emerged that Lawrence had appeared des tined almost from birth to become the Imperial Hero. The illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish landowner and the family governess, he became interested in archaeology as a boy and at Jesus College, Oxford, and came under the influence of D.G. Hogarth, a leading archaeologist of his time. Hogarth imbued Lawrence with the ideals of enlightened imperial ism, which, Hogarth believed, could lead to a new era of the British empire. Lawrence began to study medieval history and military tactics and to train his body to resist pain and exhaustion. He would walk his bicycle downhill and ride it up, fast; take long cross-country walks, fording streams even in the coldest weather; and spend long, lonely evenings on the Cadet Force pistol range until he became an adept shot with either hand. During a break from Oxford, Lawrence embarked on a 1,000- mile walking tour of Syria and became fascinated by the Arabs. The Crusades became the subject of his special interest, and he dreamed of becoming a modern- day crusading knight -- clean, strong, just and chaste.
Just before the outbreak of war in l914 Lawrence did a secret mapping survey of the Sinai Desert for British military intelligence, working under the cover of a historical group called the Palestine Exploration Fund. It was no surprise then that Hogarth was able to get him a wartime job with military intelligence in Cairo, where he soon ran his own agents.
But it was when the Arab Revolt broke out in June 1916 that Lawrence came into his own. As Lawrence later described it in his book, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," he led his Arabs on daring raids against Turkish supply trains on the Damascus-Medina railway. They would blow up the line, derailing the engine, then charge from the hills on their camels -- brave primitives against trained troops with machine guns. As word of the exploits of this blue-eyed young man from Oxford spread across the desert, the Arab tribes put aside their differences.
Under Lawrence, they captured the vital port of Aqaba with one glorious charge, then went on to Damascus in triumph. If the war had not ended and the politicians had not betrayed him, the story went, Lawrence might have conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) with half the tribes of Asia Minor at his side. Small wonder Paris was entranced.
As James T. Shotwell, a former professor of history at Columbia University and a member of the American delegation, described it: "The scene at dinner was the most remarkable I have ever witnessed. ... Next to the Canadian table was a large dinner party discussing the fate of Arabia and the East with two American guests. ... Between them sat that young successor of Muhammad, Col. T. E. Lawrence, the 28-year- old conqueror of Damascus, with his boyish face and almost constant smile -- the most winning figure ... at the whole peace con ference."
Shotwell did not know it, but Lawrence, dressed in the robes of an Arab prince, gold dagger across his chest, had dubious status. Al though usually seen in the company of Emir Feisal -- who was the third son of Hussein, sharif of Mecca, a direct descendant of Muhammad and guardian of the holy places in Mecca and Medina -- no one quite knew who Lawrence represented. Feisal, the military leader of the revolt started by Hussein, thought Lawrence represented him and was there to make certain that the Allies kept the promises made to the Arabs in return for their help in defeating Turkey -- promises of freedom and self-government. The British Foreign Office thought that Lawrence was there to calm down Feisal when he learned the bitter truth -- that Britain and France planned to divide the Middle East between them and turn Palestine into a national home for the Jews. Britain's India Office thought that Lawrence was there to frustrate their plan to make Iraq a province of India, populated by Indian farmers and run from Delhi. As an intelligence officer, Lawrence's job had been to find the Arab leaders most suited to run the revolt against the Turks, to keep them loyal to Britain by promises of freedom that he knew Britain would never keep and to risk this fraud "on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East and that better we win and break our word than lose." Lawrence salved his conscience at this deception by creating a romantic notion of his own. This was that he would be able to convince his political superiors -- and the Arabs -- that the best compromise would be for the Arabs to become "brown citizens" within the British empire.
With everyone pursuing his own goal and no one really interested in what the Arabs wanted, the victorious European powers proceeded to carve up the Middle East. Did they realize that their broken promises and cynical disposition of other peoples' countries would one day bring a reckoning?
The past will haunt the new Crusades because the Arabs have never forgotten the promises of freedom made to them in the First World War by the likes of Law rence and President Woodrow Wilson, and the subsequent betrayal at Paris.
It will haunt them because history in the Middle East always takes its revenge on those who insist on seeing the region through their own eyes. The mess began soon after the turn of the century. Until then the Middle East had been under 400 years of domination by the Ottoman empire, a vast and powerful hegemony extending over northern Africa, Asia and Europe. At one stage it had stretched from the Adriatic to Aden and from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, and the skill of its generals and bravery of its soldiers once pushed its reach as far as the outskirts of Vienna.
But by the mid-19th century the impact of Western technology had started to make itself felt and the great empire began to flake at the edges. When in 1853 Czar Nicholas called Turkey "a sick man," Britain became worried. If Turkey collapsed, Britain would have a duty to protect her own military and economic lines of communication with India. Others also looked to their in terests. Germany wanted to turn Iraq into "a German India"; France longed for Syria, a sentiment that dated back to the Crusades; and Russia yearned to dominate Constantinople (Istanbul), a terminus for all caravan routes in the Middle East.
By the early 1900s all these countries were pursuing their aims by covert action. In the regions now known as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Persian Gulf, networks of Western intelligence agents -- ostensibly consuls, travelers, merchants and archaeologists -- were busy influencing chieftains, winning over tribes, settling disputes and disparaging their rivals in the hope that they would benefit from the eventual disintegration of the Ottoman empire.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Turkey dithered and then chose the wrong side by joining Germany. The British scheme was simple -- to encourage the Arabs to revolt against their Turkish masters by the promise of independence when Turkey was defeated. The more worldly Arab nationalists warned that helping France and Britain achieve victory over Turkey might well lead merely to an exchange of one form of for eign domination for another.
But these words of warning went un heeded because the hopes of the Arab masses were raised by the United States' entry into the war in April 1917. The Arabs thought that the American government might be more receptive than the British to their demands for self- determination. After all, the Americans knew what it was like to be under the thumb of a colonial power, and President Wilson's Fourteen Points, which advocated freedom and self-determination for races under the domination of the old multinational empires, was highly encouraging.
But the Arab skeptics turned out to be right. The Allies did not keep their promises. The Arabs did exchange one imperial ruler for another. There were forces at work of which they were ignorant. The two most powerful of these were oil and the Zionist hunger for a national home in Palestine. At the peace conference, pri vate oil concerns pushed their governments (in the national in terest, of course) to renounce all wartime promises to the Arabs. For the oilmen saw only too well that oil concessions and royalties would be easier to negotiate with a series of rival Arab states lacking any sense of unity, than with a powerful independent Arab state in the Middle East.
Across the Atlantic, President Wilson looked on "the whole disgusting scramble for the Middle East" with horror. It offended everything he believed the United States stood for, and the British establishment became worried about Wilson's views. They could imperil British policy for the area. The question became, therefore, how could Britain's imperialist designs on the Middle East be reconciled with Wilson's commitment to Middle Eastern independence?
One school of thought was that "Lawrence of Arabia" might provide the link. Lawrence of Arabia was the creation of an American: Lowell Thomas, one-time newspaperman and lecturer at Princeton. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the American people showed a marked reluctance to take up arms, so to inspire the nation to fight, President Wilson set up the Committee on Public Information under the chairmanship of a journalist, George Creel. One of his first acts was to have Thomas gather stirring stories to stimulate enthusiasm for war. It did not take long for Thomas to realize that there was nothing up lifting in the mud and mechanized slaughter in Europe, so the British Department of Information guided him to the Middle East where the British army was about to cap ture Jerusalem. There Thomas found a story with powerful appeal.
The war in the Middle East, militarily only a sideshow, could be presented as a modern crusade for the liberation of the Holy Land and the emancix pation of its Arab, Jewish and Armenian communities. Thomas called Lawrence "Britain's modern Coeur de Lion." Thomas and an American news reel photographer, Harry Chase, sought out Lawrence and did stories about this new Richard the Lionhearted. Chase's newsreel footage was a part of Thomas' lecture on the Middle Eastern campaign, which eventually toured the world. Thomas refined his presentation with the help of Dale Carnegie, who later wrote "How to Win Friends and Influence People." It became an extravaganza, complete with a theater set featuring moonlight on the Nile and pyramids in the background, the Dance of the Seven Veils, the muezzin's call to prayer (adapted and sung by Mrs. Thomas), slides, newsreel footage and Thomas' commentary, ac companied by music from the band of the Welsh Guards and clouds of eastern incense wafting from glowing braziers. It was an enormous success and was seen by an estimated 4 mil lion people and made Thomas -- whom Lawrence referred to as "the American who made my vulgar reputation, a well-intentioned, intensely crude and pushful fel low" -- into a millionaire.
According to Thomas, the Arx abs did not regard the fall of the Turks and the arrival of the British as an exchange of one ruler for another but rather as a liberation and they were delighted when Britain agreed to run their affairs. The British were more than happy to see this point of view so skilfully nourished in America.
The second force that helped frustrate Arab aspirations was Zionism. While the European powers had seen the war with Turkey as an opportunity to divide the Ottoman empire and thus extend their imperial ambitions in the Middle East, the Zionists quickly realized that the future of Palestine was now open and that they might be able to play a large part in its future. They found support from Herbert Samuel, then under secretary at the Home Office, who put the Zionist case before the cabinet in a secret memorandum. He said that the Zionists would welcome an annexation of Palestine by Britain, which "would enable England to fulfill in yet another sphere her historic part as civilizer of the backward countries."
On Nov. 2, 1917, Foreign Sec retary Arthur Balfour made his famous and deeply ambiguous declaration that Britain would "view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. ..." By the time of the peace confer ence, with a prestigious Zionist lobby (one of its leaders was Har vard Law School professor Felix Frankfurter, later a U.S. Supreme Court justice) actively working for a national home in Palestine, the Arabs realized that they had been outmaneuvered. In April 1920, there was another conference, at San Remo, Italy, to ratify earlier agreements. The whole Arab rectangle lying between the Mediterranean and the Persian frontier, including Palestine, was placed under mandates allotted to suit the imperialist ambitions of Britain and France.
There was an outburst of bitter anger. The Arabs began raiding British establishments in Iraq and striking at the French in Syria. Both insurrections were ruthlessly put down. In Iraq the British army burnt any village from which an attack had been mounted, but the Iraqis were not deterred. Lawrence weighed in from Oxford, where he was now a fellow of All Souls College, suggesting with heavy irony that burning villages was not very efficient: "By gas attacks the whole population of offending districts could be wiped out neatly; and as a method of government it would be no more immoral than the present system."
The grim truth was that something along these lines was actually being considered. Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war and air, asked the chief of air staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, if he would be prepared to take over control of Iraq because the army had estimated it would need 80,000 troops and 21.5 million pounds a year, "which is consid ered to be more than the country is worth." Churchill suggested that if the RAF were to take on the job, "it would ... entail the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death ... for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes."
In the end the air force stuck to conventional high-explosive bombs, a method Britain used to control the Middle East well into the 1950s. Arab nationalist leaders waited for American protests at this suppression in Iraq and Syria but nothing happened. What the Arabs failed to see was that with the Zionists already in the ascendancy in Palestine, America had lost in terest in the sordid struggle of imperial powers in the Middle East.
And where was Lawrence during all this? He was at his mother's home in Oxford undergoing a major crisis of conscience. He was depressed, and according to his mother, would sometimes sit between breakfast and lunch "in the same position, without moving, and with the same expression on his face." It seems reasonable to assume that Lawrence felt guilty over the betrayal of the Arabs, both on a personal and a national level. This would explain why he jumped at the chance to join Winston Churchill, who had by this time moved to the Colonial Office, and was determined to do something about the Middle East.
Lawrence's first job was to make amends to Feisal by offering to make him king of Iraq. But there were other popular claimants, including Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, whom Churchill had re jected for fear that "he would plunge the whole country into reli gious pandemonium." Another candidate, the nation alist leader Sayid Taleb, gained enormous popular support after threatening to revolt if the British did not allow the Iraqis to choose their leader freely. Ever resourceful, the British sabotaged Taleb's candidacy by arranging for an armored car to pick him up as he left the British high commissioner's house in Baghdad following afternoon tea. He was whisked on board a British ship and sent for a long holiday in Ceylon. With Sayid Taleb out of the way, Feisal was elected king by a suspiciously large majority -- 96.8 percent. Because the British desired a quiet, stable state in Jordan to protect Palestine, Feisal's brother Abdullah was made king and provided with money and troops in return for his promise to suppress local anti-French and anti-Zionist activity. Their father, Hussein, the sharif of Mecca, the man who had started the Arab Revolt, was offered 100,000 pounds a year not to make a nuisance of himself, and Ibn Saud received the same amount to accept the whole settlement and not attack Hussein. And that was that.
Lawrence regarded this as redemption in full of Britain's promises to the Arabs. Unfortu nately, the Arabs did not see it this way and have, in one way or another, been in revolt ever since. In Iraq, Feisal managed to obtain some measure of independence by the time of his death in 1932. But British forces intervened again in 1942 to overthrow the pro-German nationalist government of Rashid Ali. Feisal's kingdom fell in 1958, a belated casualty of the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt two years earlier. France hung on to Syria and Lebanon until 1946 before grudgingly evacuating its forces.
In the same year Britain -- coming to terms with her diminished status -- gave up her claim on Jordan. Abdullah reigned until 1951 when he was shot dead while entering the mosque of El Aqsa in Jerusalem in the company of his grandson, the present King Hussein. The assassin was a follower of the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem, who had accused Abdullah of having betrayed the Arabs over Palestine.
In 1958 the American Sixth Fleet stood by to save Hussein from a repetition of the coup that had just ousted his cousin, Feisal II, in Iraq. Hussein and his king dom, shorn of the West Bank, have survived -- the lasting legacy of Lawrence. His grandfather, Hussein, sharif of Mecca, continued to reign there, bitterly regretting having raised the Arab Revolt for the British, until Ibn Saud overran the city in 1924. In Palestine, Jewish immigra tion increased rapidly in the 1930s as many fled from Hitler's Europe. This influx, in turn, led in 1936 -- less than a year after Lawrence's death -- to an Arab revolt, which was crushed by the British army in 1938. Unable to cope with a Jewish revolt, Britain relinquished her mandate in 1947. Immediately af terward the state of Israel was es tablished and in 1948 the first Arab-Israeli war occurred.
The United States held aloof from the area until oil finally locked it in. There had been some prospecting on the Saudi's eastern seaboard since 1923, but the first swallow to herald Saudi Arabia's long summer of revenue from oil was the American Charles R. Crane, who in 1931 brought in a mining engineer, Karl Twitchell, to make some mineral and water surveys. The following year Twitchell interested the Standard Oil Co. of California in exploring for oil in Saudi Arabia and it achieved commercial production in March 1938. The United States now had a strategic interest in the region.
If the new crusaders defeat and occupy Iraq, what then? Perhaps a new "Feisal" inserted as token ruler of a reluctant population? And so a new cycle of anger, frustration and bloodshed will begin because 800 years after the Crusades there will still be foreigners in Arab lands.
And Lawrence himself? Every thing after his experiences in the Middle East was an anticlimax for him. He was consumed with guilt over the way the Arabs had been treated, had a mental breakdown and embarked on a series of homosexual sadomasochistic experiences. He changed his name, first to John Hume Ross when he joined the Royal Air Force, and later to Thomas Edward Shaw when he joined the Tank Corps. He even tually went back into the RAF and, not long after retiring, crashed his motorcycle near his home in Dorset. Six days later, on May 19, 1935, his injuries proved fatal.
An incident during the Cairo Conference in 1921 sums up the Arab attitude toward Western intervention in their affairs -- one which may not have changed over the years. One day while Lawrence and Churchill were touring Palestine their party got caught up in an anti-Zionist riot. Lawrence, in his neat suit and Homburg hat, conducted Churchill through the crowd of gesticulating Arabs.
"I say, Lawrence," Churchill offered, looking rather worried, "are these people dangerous? They don't seem too pleased to see us."
PHILLIP KNIGHTLEY, a British author and journalist, wrote "The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia." He is best-known for "The First Ca sualty: A History of War Reporting and Propaganda."