It is now fifty years since the publication of T. E. Lawrence's memoirs, subtitled A Triumph. This seems like an appropriate time to look back and, by comparing things as they appeared then with the way they appear now, to attempt a determination of just how deserved that subtitle is.
Even the Turks will admit that they lost the First World War, and no one could reasonably detract from the accomplishments of Lawrence and Allenby in contributing to their defeat. Nonetheless, the question ought to be raised as to whether that turn of events benefited the world, and whether another policy, based on different premises, might not have been better.
With the sole exception of Iran, all of the worst trouble spots in today's Middle East used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. I do not think it facetious to speculate that if Lebanon were still a Turkish possession, we would not be experiencing the trouble that is now coming from that quarter. Lawrence faults the Turkish colonial administration with laziness, which is doubtless true; but that laziness is what led the Turks to follow a policy in all of their dominions of accommodation of religious and ethnic minorities, so as to avoid grief. It is a fact, for instance, that the last war between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires was started by a revolt in the Austrian part of Hungary whose objective was to make it part of Ottoman Hungary, because the Calvinist Magyars preferred being left alone by Islamic governors to being persecuted by their fellow-Christian (but Catholic) Austrian overlords.
Everyone who has seen the movie knows what Lawrence did. But without reading his book, you miss his inside view of the councils of British Middle East policy anno 1915. Here is how things stood. Britain had attempted two direct military assaults on the Ottoman Empire, one in Mesopotamia (a.k.a. Iraq) and the other at Gallipoli. Churchill had to resign from the Cabinet on account of Gallipoli, and nobody took responsibility for the debacle in Mesopotamia. In a few month's time, Britain wasted more lives on the beach at Gallipoli than the United States lost in ten years in Viet Nam.
Both of these adventures were colonialist in nature. Their objective was less to harm the Central Powers than to enhance the British Empire at the expense of Turkey. Mesopotamia was invaded in order to establish a buffer colony on the west flank of India. (Had Britain known about the oil fields at Mosul, they would have had an even better reason; had Ataturk known about them, he would not have traded them away to Britain so cheaply after the war.) The invasion at Gallipoli was ostensibly to lead to a capture of Istanbul. While this appeared to be a war-related objective, it proved to have been colonialistic in nature, since the same objective was publicly proclaimed five years later as the reason for British naval support of the Greek invasion of Turkey, when it was openly admitted that British foreign policy aimed at Istanbul's becoming a larger Gibraltar. Whitehall intended to control all of the routes connecting the Mediterranean with the rest of the world.
If the British military objective in the Middle East had been merely to defeat the Turks, as Lawrence notes, they should have landed their forces in Syria, where they could have counted on the support of the Arab contingents of the Turkish army, who were looking for any excuse they could find to cut their ties to the Sublime Porte. Faced with the failure of their two great expeditions, the British were forced to fall back on what was, from the colonialist perspective, a second-best, war-time expedient, policy, namely that of Lawrence and his think-alikes.
War-time expedients are seldom suitable as the foundations of long-range foreign policy; yet that is what happened to Lawrence's view. I think is is not unfair to sum up his opinion concerning the Middle East in four words: turn the Arabs loose. I don't think that I have to suggest that you do anything beyond reading tomorrow's newspaper. It is obvious from what fills the printed page and the airwaves almost every day that the Middle East, over the last thirty years or so, is the world's longest continuing disaster.
Lawrence's reverence for the Arabs is matched only by his contempt for the Turks. This contempt is based more on his contact with individual Turks in the provinces than with direct knowledge of leading personalities, of which he had none. It is fitting to note in this context that in the index to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the name of Mustapha Kemal occurs only twice, reflecting two fleeting references in the text of the book. This book was publicly published in 1935 (private printing, 1926) a mere three years before the death of Mustapha Kemal, who is better known these days, if at all, by his adopted surname of Ataturk.
Lawrence holds up Allenby as proof of his own wisdom. Yet it was Ataturk who fought Allenby to a standstill in the Hatay. Ataturk had been frozen out of command by the other Young Turks for years, and his taking command in Syria was the Empire's last-gasp expedient. But he won. And had the government in Istanbul not capitulated, it is conceivable that he could have rolled Allenby all the way back to the Red Sea.
Ataturk was the only Turkish general to emerge from the Great War undefeated. Before Syria, he had already distinguished himself while in command of a paper division (the 19th) headquartered in Istanbul. It was Ataturk who, while on a jaunt to the Dardenelles, saw the magnitude of the ANZAC menace, commandeered other generals' troops into a field-expedient defense force, demolished the chain of command in order to protect his homeland against foreign invasion, and did a very creditable imitation of George Patton until things were safe enough for him to turn over command to the German Liman von Sanders, who took over the routine of blowing the Australians to bits.
Eventually, by force of personality, Ataturk took command of an entire nation. He was not uniformly admirable. He was dissolute in his personal life, and his career is marred by a handful of judicial murders. But under the circumstances, he might be excused. He was the diametric opposite of the stereotypical Turk envisioned by Lawrence. In a profoundly Islamic, and profoundly backward, country, he abolished the Caliphate, the highest office of Islam, which had been held by the Ottomans for six centuries. He Romanized the alphabet. He adopted the Gregorian calendar. He moved the official sabbath from Friday to Sunday, to conform with the practice of Western countries. He outlawed the veil, and he enacted female suffrage. He imported Western engineers to upgrade the Turkish railways, he built hydropower plants, he established model farms.
The full impact of Ataturk on Turkish society remains to be assessed. Yet it is inescapable that he is exactly the sort of person who should have been the cornerstone of British policy in the area instead of their nemesis. I suspect it is safe to say that it was only Britain's support of the Greeks in the war of 1922-1924 that kept Turkey neutral in the Second World War.
Ataturk proved Lawrence wrong, and I dare say that that is exactly why he gets such short shrift from the great man. Ataturk would have been happy to make his country run like another England; the romantic Lawrence would have been happy to turn every country into another Arabia. Ataturk was a realist, Lawrence was a mystic. Ataturk had at hand only the means of Turkey to work with, Lawrence had British foreign policy, on which he had an influence far out of proportion to his worth. I think the results speak for themselves. Turkey remains to this day, albeit limpingly, democratic and progressive; the products of British foreign policy following the Great War, e.g. Israel and Iraq, are the breeding grounds of genocide and total war. It is fitting that the British creation, Iraq, has initiated the use of chemical warfare for the first time since 1915.
The experience of the Soviet Union in the Middle East in the years following World War II has shown the value of a policy using so-called "client states" as surrogates for their principals in areas difficult of access for political or logistical reasons. A similar insight might have led Whitehall, instead of splintering off sundry Arab states from the Ottoman Empire, to establish a modern Turkey under the leadership of Ataturk as the viceroy of Britain in the Middle East, maintaining many of the old administrative ties that existed prior to the Great War, while promoting Ataturk's domestic reforms in the provinces.
Instead, Britain preferred to gerrymander the Middle East, creating unheard-of-things like Trans-Jordan, and trying to make out of a Sir John Glubb at great expense what they could have had out of Ataturk for nothing.
The Turks were wrong to side with the Central Powers in the Great War; they were incomparably more wrong to massacre the Armenians, an event which was a direct outgrowth of that war. Yet the Germans, who massacred a significantly larger number of Slavs, Jews and Gypsies, have not failed to benefit from post-war magnanimity from their former enemies (see Marshall Plan.) We are generally reckoned to have benefited from George Marshall's wisdom, where it affects Europe. Would we not be incomparably wiser to apply that same wisdom to the Levant?
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