Summary of "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East"

Summary of

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East

By David Fromkin

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. 1st American Ed. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co., 1989.

Summary: Many of the current conflicts in the Middle East are largely a result of the haphazard way in which national boundaries were established after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Fromkin discusses the consequences of poor policies and weak intelligence on the part of the British as they reshaped the Middle East.

This important work has continued relevance for world politics today as the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire created the modern Middle East. Fromkin's study focuses heavily on British policy-making as the decisive force in shaping the region. What becomes apparent, however, is that they were anything but decisive. Fromkin's history emphasizes the lack of British intelligence on the condition of the Ottoman Empire and the sentiment of their subjects. For example, the British were certain that Arabs would welcome the opportunity to live under a British protectorate rather than under the Ottomans. In fact, there was little interest on the part of Arabs to be ruled by Christians. We also get a detailed view of British domestic and institutional politics. Official British policy vis-à-vis Arabs and Jews in the region also shifted during the course of the war. As a result of all of this, by the end of World War I, a tangled mix of promises, both implicit and explicit, made it nearly impossible to create a stable region as the promises were largely incompatible.

Once World War I began, there was little interest on the part of the British in opening a southern front. In the 'Great Game' mentality, the Ottoman Empire was a useful buffer between the British and the Russians. However, the course of the war led to a gradual evolution in British thinking on the desire to preserve the Ottoman Empire and the relative weight of long-term distrust of Russia versus a current necessary ally in the war.

As already suggested, British politics figure prominently in shaping the Middle East. We see how personalities clashed and bureaucratic politics shaped perceptions (often incorrect) of the situation in the Middle East. Early on, the Secretary of State for War, Kitchener, being a commander with perceived expertise in the Middle East was not questioned. Initially reluctant to dilute resources from the Western front, the book chronicles how the British stumbled into attacking the Ottoman Empire. We see the internal debates that went on as to the wisdom of invading the Dardanelles. Faith in Kitchener would lead the British Cabinet to keep the troops in Gallipoli for far too long. The narrative also reveals how different interests prevailed in London and the colonial centers of Cairo and India, which led to misunderstanding and deception.

As an illustration of Britain's poor intelligence in the region, we learn of Muhammed Sharif al-Faruqi, who emerged in 1915-6 and came to be trusted by the British as a voice of the Arabs and Emir Hussein in particular. Al-Faruqi promised help in a British victory. Little is known about him, but Britain's dealings with al-Faruqi led to a complete change in planning for the postwar Middle East and the role France, Russia, and the Arabs would play in it. Ultimately, the misunderstandings or deception between the British and al-Faruqi had lasting consequences essentially up to the present. A dance ensued in British relations with the Arabs in which they intimated independence if the Arabs helped in the war effort, but what was really meant was British dominion. The Arabs, in turn, promised support for the British that they were in no position to provide.

In the year from autumn 1916, all three of the major Allied powers (Britain, France, and Russia) had a change of government. In all cases, the new governments had very different ideas about the Middle East than had their predecessors. David Lloyd George became prime minister looking much more covetously at the Middle East. Shortly thereafter, Georges Clemenceau became premier of France. Historically, he had felt negatively about colonial expansion believing that France had overextended herself in the late 1800s making her vulnerable to the Germans. Perhaps most dramatic, the Russian revolution led to Russia pulling out of the war.

To compound this, German attacks propelled the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson's personal beliefs in self-determination drove him to support independence for the peoples of the Middle East. The ambiguity of language permitted the British to agree with Wilson, when in fact they intended to maintain a protectorate. In a parallel development, for a range of moral, religious, and political reasons, the British government adopted the Zionist cause.

As the Allied victory in World War I became more likely, at least in the Middle East, the dishonesty with which the Allies and their Arab allies, treated each other became apparent. Each sought to position themselves to gain the most in the Middle East after the war. This was to continue as the peace was being constructed. Britain's David Lloyd George attempted to play Woodrow Wilson's idealistic self-determination against French, Italian, and Greek desires for territorial gain in the former Ottoman Empire. Economic crisis and demands for demobilization by the rank-and-file and the public, however, sapped Britain's strength.

At the same time, from late 1918 through 1921, riots and revolts erupted throughout the Middle East from Egypt in the west to Afghanistan in the east. As a result of these developments, Britain was more open to French involvement and greater devolution to local populations. In particular, Britain helped Feisal and Abdullah of the House of Hashem as the rulers of Iraq and Transjordan respectively and the House of Saud on the Arabian peninsula assert their authority over territories to which they personally had little historical connection. Finally, in another historically important move, after much internal disagreement, the British supported the Zionist cause in separating Palestine west of the Jordan River from Transjordan.

Due to continually changing perceptions of global politics and domestic political coalitions, ultimately, "British policy-makers imposed a settlement upon the Middle East in 1922 in which, for the most part, they themselves no longer believed." (563) The consequence of these events, as subsequent history bears out, has been that the borders and the governments created would be in dispute with global consequences.