Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East

Nov 12, 2008

How did the modern Middle East come about? Who were the British and Americans who shaped this region, from the 1882 British invasion of Egypt to today's Iraq War?

IntroductionJOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I’d like to welcome our members, guests, and C-SPAN Book TV.

Today I’m delighted to be introducing two longtime friends of the Carnegie Council, Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, authors of 12 books, who make reading history always accessible and very enjoyable.

Karl, as many of you know, has written extensively on foreign affairs. As a former editor of the World Policy Journal and as a staff member of The New York Times and the Washington Post, his articles have always been a must-read. Shareen was a prize-winning documentary producer at CBS News. Together, they are an extraordinary team, as their earlier work, Tournament of Shadows, indicates.

Kingmakers, which is the subject of their discussion, is about the creation of the modern Middle East. This is a book that encapsulates a century's worth of misjudgment, overreach, and catastrophe. But more than a historical voyage through a region that for a very long time has had the ability to draw attention, upset international politics, and still fascinate so many, it is a cautionary tale. Why? Simply because so many historical parallels abound between the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the 21st century, which makes for a very compelling read.

Karl and Shareen tell the story of 12 colorful and charismatic Britons and Americans who meddled in the Arabian lands of the Middle East and North Africa and, while doing so, shaped the arc of history in this region. The period they chose to cover begins with the British consul general, Lord Cromer, who secured control of Egypt during the late 19th century, and ends with the 21st century and Paul Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects who planned the invasion of Iraq.

What makes this narrative so interesting is the way these players are woven into a continuum which puts their lives into perspective, illuminating their crucial roles and the consequences of their acts. As you read about the experiences of these adventurers, some of them will be familiar to you, such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell; others less familiar. Some, such as CIA agents Miles Copeland and Kermit Roosevelt, as well as the Pentagon’s Paul Wolfowitz, are quite controversial. Yet all have been instrumental in giving birth to some of the nations'institutions and chronic problems that we have with us in the Middle East today.

Whether it is talk about withdrawing our troops from Iraq, keeping Arab insurgencies in check, or protecting our oil interests, these issues have been addressed before. But when our speakers take a new look at them, it becomes clear that these earlier Englishmen are the progenitors and, some would even argue, the role models for the current crop of American diplomats and soldiers now in the region.

Karl and Shareen are apt guides to discuss this subject, as they have widely traveled the Middle East and have done extensive research in the region. They will provide an engrossing account of past events and restore life to those adventurous Brits and Americans who gave us the modern Middle East.

At this time, I ask that you please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our speakers today, Karl and Shareen. Thank you very much for coming.

RemarksKARL MEYER: Thank you, Joanne. What I propose to do is to talk for, I hope, no more than 30 minutes, and then Shareen will join in the question period and the discussion afterward.

Let me start off by saying that I was searching for a text for the brief remarks in which we give some highlights from our book. With the World Series still on and Yankee Stadium being much in our minds, I take two texts from Yogi Berra, the sage and American Confucius. One text is Yogi's advice, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

The other is his caution, "It's déjà vu all over again."

I would say that very much both points—I will elaborate a little—were on our minds as we were writing about the origins of the Middle East that we know today, and many of the very same problems, summed up in such buzzwords as "shock and awe," "regime change," "exit strategy," "mission creep," "Sunni versus Shia," "insurgency," "jihad," "dead or alive," "stuff happens," and "bring ‘em on," all had a resonance in our research earlier.

First, I want to talk about some of the people that established the contours of the Middle East; second, I want to discuss the role of oil, which is, I think, key to understanding the shape of the region; and then finally, briefly, exit strategies.

We forget that before World War I, the region that we know as the Middle East, except for the cases of Egypt and Persia, which were old nations, was a series of provinces, the Arab Middle East, within the Ottoman Empire. It was during World War I that the Middle East that we know took shape.

The first question that I want to talk to is, what were the people that created the Middle East thinking of?

We start out, as Joanne said, with Lord Cromer. Lord Cromer is interesting to us for several reasons. One, he set the formula for what became the British modus operandi after World War I of indirect rule. It’s interesting. I think most of us have forgotten how important Lord Cromer was in the Victorian empire. Indeed, he was ranked as the fourth-most important and powerful person in the empire after the queen, prime minister, and the viceroy of India.

The irony of this is that he had never had a title, from the time that he arrived in Egypt in 1883 until his departure in 1907, other than consul general of the British government in Cairo. It was even odder that Egypt was not formally part of the British Empire, but was actually formally a province of the Ottoman Empire, and its ruler, the khedive, was the representative of the sultan in Constantinople.

So how did it come about that Cromer had this role? There were three big reasons.

The first was, in 1882, the British invaded and occupied Egypt. The reason they did so—and this was at the time that Gladstone, the great liberal, was the prime minister—was that the British were concerned, first of all, about the security of the Suez Canal. They had purchased the majority shares of the canal in 1875 and owned it.

Second, they were concerned about the repayment of the extensive bonds that the successive khedives had taken to support their government and their lifestyle.

Third, they were concerned about the safety of a growing European population in both Cairo and Alexandria.

When, in 1882, there was a colonels' revolt, in which a group of high officers in the Egyptian Army deposed the khedive's government and installed their own, a cry went up that we had to do something. Gladstone, reluctantly and against his instincts, authorized the invasion and occupation of Egypt. This was carried out by an expeditionary army that went in, and, from the very moment that it happened, Gladstone insisted that it was strictly temporary. He said, "We're going in only to help restore responsible government in Egypt and to protect certain vital security interests. As soon as that's achieved, as soon as we have helped the Egyptians to set up a stable and progressive-looking government, we'll leave."

He said that in 1882, 1883, 1884. In fact, according to A. J. P. Taylor, the British no fewer than 67 times repeated exactly that statement, that it was a temporary occupation, which finally ended in 1954.

The reason that it went on is that there was always something coming up that made the British feel they had to stay, and their instrument was Cromer. Now, Cromer had an interesting background. He was a Baring. He was Evelyn Baring. The Barings were a banking dynasty, ranked as the sixth great power in Europe at the height of their financial prowess. Although he was not a member of the bank itself, he grew up knowing the ins and outs of the bond market, particularly.

Second, Cromer was a gifted tactician and strategist, in concealing his role in getting others to carry out the British wishes. He did this so successfully that the British came to look upon him as a permanent fixture there, and when there was a crisis, they turned to Cromer.

The people in Egypt, however, very soon understood that their khedive and his government were not the real rulers of Egypt, but that a man that they first called the Bear and later called El-Lord was the secret ruler of Egypt.

There were pluses and minuses for the Egyptians and for the British in this. The plus was that there were a lot of good public works and a lot of things were done. The minus was that it was a humiliating position for the Egyptians, and there was bound to be, and there ultimately was, a day of judgment on indirect rule.

Let me just add that indirect rule had a number of interpreters. One interpreter put it this way: under the system that the British were using, in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, the political officer, who was the agent representing the government, should be the whisper behind the throne, but never for an instant the throne itself.

Another British high official put it more crudely. He called, "Buy a sheikh, rent an emir." This was the technique used, not only in the Middle East, but, as I mentioned, Africa, Nigeria being a prime example.

The problem recurred as to when the British would pull out. When, finally, the Egyptians had a new and more successful colonels' revolt and Colonel Nasser became the nationalist president, you had the emblematic meeting in 1955, when Sir Anthony Eden, who was then the foreign secretary, soon to be the prime minister, succeeding Churchill, of Great Britain, was in Cairo for his one and only meeting with—he always called him "Colonel Nasser" and never "president"—with Colonel Nasser. When he was in Cairo, Nasser called up and said, "Would you do us a favor? I would like to meet you at the embassy."

So he came to the British embassy in Cairo. When they were in the great office where the consul general presided, or the ambassador at that time, Nasser said, "I've always wanted to be in the room from which Egypt was ruled for so long."

Eden turned to Nasser and said, "Surely not ruled, merely advised, Colonel Nasser."

That expressed the dilemma in indirect rule. Yet, for various reasons, this is what came out of World War I in the Middle East.

The reason was—we come to Yogi Berra's statement about, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it"—when the war broke out, the British had a vital interest, for a number of reasons—oil, security, the canal, et cetera— to secure the Middle East as best they could militarily, after the Ottoman Empire, in November of 1914, unwisely decided to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. The British immediately sent an army, an Anglo-Indian army.

Here let me just pause to say that the Indian Army provided the bulk of the manpower for the British forces in World War I. More than one million Anglo-Indian soldiers served on the Western Front and in the Middle East. There was a special advantage to the British in this; the advantage being that under the system that they had, what were called the ordinary costs of the Indian Army were borne by the Indian government, the British Indian government, so that it was a cost-free thing to use these troops, to bring them into the Middle East.

That meant that the Indian government felt that it should have a voice on the destiny in the Middle East. You had a developing doctrine. The Middle East, according to the viceroy and his agents, should be either a protectorate or a formal part of the Indian Empire and a place for the settlement of Indians after the war.

So you had this one view. A key to this view was a guy who was the territorial architect of the Iraq we know today. His name was A. T. Wilson. Wilson, who came out of the Indian Army and the Indian political service, once said—and this states very much the philosophy of his generation and his school of thought—that "before the Great War, my generation served men who believed in the righteousness of the vocation to which they had been called. They were the priests, we were the acolytes of a cult, Pax Britannica, for which we worked happily and, if needs be, died gladly."

Wilson’s view was that Iraq should be a protectorate. After the British entered Baghdad in 1917, Wilson saw a chance, as acting civil commissioner, to bring about the creation of a protectorate.

I will mention in a minute why he was so well plugged in on the oil circuit.

He immediately saw that if you were going to have an economically viable Iraq, you had to add a province called Mosul, which had been promised to the French and which was formerly attached to Syria—add Mosul to Baghdad and Basra, the two other Ottoman provinces what were to be Iraq. So intent was Wilson on this that after World War I ended and the armistice of November 1918, he ordered British Indian troops to occupy Mosul, on his own authority. He did this prior to going to the Paris Peace Conference, where you had two other figures that were key figures in the creation of Iraq. One is a household name, Lawrence of Arabia. The other is the well-known Gertrude Bell.

When Wilson came to Paris, he persuaded Lloyd George, the prime minister at the time, that Mosul should be attached to Iraq. Lloyd George prevailed on Clemenceau to cede the French claim to the area, and that's what happened.

Lawrence represented another view on the fork in the road. He was part of the Arab Bureau based in Cairo. The Arabists in Cairo were, number one, concerned about welding British interests with Arab states, Arab-governed states. They were, in varying degrees, for some kind of self-government for the Arabs. The Arab Bureau, which helped inspire the Arab revolt, had a candidate. The candidate was Faisal, who was the son of the emir of the area in Arabia in which the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were. He was the protector of those holy cities.

Faisal came with Lawrence to Paris, and there the third person in our triumvirate comes in, Gertrude Bell. Gertrude Bell was quite a remarkable woman. She was the first woman before World War I, not only among the first to enter Oxford, but to qualify for an all-important first in history at Oxford. I say "qualify," because at that time Oxford did not give degrees to women. Not until the 1920s did they do so. But Gertrude Bell was renowned for her intellect. She traveled widely through the Middle East. She spoke Arabic and she spoke Farsi. When World War I broke out, she was part of the Arab Bureau.

Initially, Gertrude Bell took the view that Wilson was right; it should be a formal protectorate. At Paris, her view changed, under the influence of Lawrence, and she saw the destination being a monarchy.

These were the choices that the British had. In between was the British government, based in Whitehall in London. After the war, you had a very great problem in Iraq, because the Iraqis felt they have been promised liberation. That was the word used by the British general Allenby in 1917. When he entered Baghdad, he said, "We come not as conquerors, but as liberators."

They had also understood that Woodrow Wilson, in his 12th point, promised the Arabic peoples the unmolested autonomous development in the Middle East.

So with some reason, they did not like being controlled and occupied and being told what kind of government they should have. Therefore, in 1920, you had an insurgency, an insurgency that united the Shia, the Sunnis, the Kurds, in their protest against the continued British occupation.

Lloyd George called upon the right person, he felt, to fix it, Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill was then the colonial minister. Churchill had his own ideas of what to do. He right away took Lawrence as an adviser, and he summoned a conference in Cairo. This was in March 1921. At the conference in Cairo, dealing with what he jocularly called "the 40 thieves"—these being the representatives of the British rule in the region, plus the people that he brought from London—in a meeting of two weeks, they essentially established the contours of much of the Middle East that we know today.

They agreed, first, that Iraq should be a monarchy and that Faisal should be the king.

They agreed, second, that Faisal’s older brother, Abdullah, as a consolation prize, should get the kingdom of Transjordan. As Churchill wrote in his memoirs later, he said that Jordan was a country that he created on a Sunday afternoon with a stroke of his pen. That was the second big decision.

The third decision: They went ahead with the promises that they had made in the closing days of the war in the Balfour Declaration to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in what was then Palestine. That was ratified in Cairo.

So all these things were happening and creating new political entities under a system of veiled, background British control, through these surrogates.

What made this vital not just to the British, but to the United States, was the emerging importance of oil. Here let me just pause to say that Churchill, before World War I, formed a partnership with Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord. Jackie Fisher was the one who saw that the future of the British Navy was in converting from coal to oil in the capital ships, because this meant that they were liberated from colliers that brought out the coal to the ships to serve them. They didn't need a stoker. They could run faster, cheaper—in every way, a great advantage. And they discovered that the British Empire, rich in many things, was poor in oil.

There were two great anniversaries that I think highlight the theme of what I'm going to say. They were anniversaries, strangely and curiously unremarked this year.

The first occurred in May 1908. It took place in the Zagros Mountains of Persia. That was when a British consortium struck oil and, for the first time, people became aware of the potential riches, the vast underground mineral wealth, in the Middle East. By chance, A.T. Wilson, the man I mentioned as the one who brought Mosul into Iraq, was a young Indian Army officer. He was present, and when oil was struck, he ordered a group of Bengal Lancers to circle it and to claim the derrick and the area around it as if it were British territory.

The other great anniversary was in May 1933, 75 years ago. This took place in Saudi Arabia. The Americans were outsiders on oil. They tried to get in. The British did all they could to keep their control on the access of the oil. But in the late 1920s, Ibn Saud, the ruler who created what we know as Saudi Arabia, had an unpaid British adviser, named Jack Philby.

Jack had been in the Indian Civil Service, broke with them because he disapproved of the policies of the government, and became an unpaid adviser. He had a particular problem. The problem was, in the late 1920s, he had three children that he had to pay school fees for, two daughters and a son named Kim. In order to pay Kim's fees, he reached an agreement with Standard Oil of California. Standard Oil of California had found that there was the promise of real oil in Saudi Arabia and were paying secretly $1,000 a month to Philby, as an unpaid adviser, to tilt the bidding in their favor, which he did.

The British representative in Jeddah was furious when he discovered that the British bidder had lost and that the Americans had won.

In a few years, they found there was so much oil in Saudi Arabia that SoCal, Standard Oil of California, was not big enough to take care of it and market it. So they brought Standard Oil of New Jersey and Texaco into a consortium that became Aramco. So that's how the Americans came in.

I would just add one final thought on Iraq. The Iraqis wanted, when the British became the mandated rulers in the 1920s, a share of what the British had just organized, the Iraq Petroleum Company. The British said, "No. Instead of a 21 percent equity, it would be better to give you an advance on royalties. We'll give you a 13 percent advance on future royalties," which was the deal that was struck. That meant that the Iraqis did not have any insider control in the oil company. It also meant that in order to finance their own groups, they had to take loans from the IPC against future royalties and became subordinate to it.

As this was happening, the Americans came in. In the 1950s, the Americans did the unthinkable to the other oil companies: They changed the percentage division between royalties that the company took and those kept by the host country. Fifty-fifty was the new percentage. This replaced a far less advantageous percentage that had prevailed in the rest of the Middle East.

One of the persons who was aware that something could be done about it was a remarkable man named Mohammed Mosaddeq. Mohammed Mosaddeq was an Iranian nationalist who became the prime minister and, in 1951, began to promote the nationalization of the British oil company. He succeeded. The nationalization took place. The British were furious. This led, first, to their coming to the Americans saying, "We need a regime change in Iran."

The Americans then—it was Truman and Dean Acheson, secretary of state—rebuffed the approach. They sympathized with Mosaddeq. But Eisenhower came in in the next election. John Foster Dulles was the secretary of state and his younger brother, Allen Dulles, was head of Central Intelligence. The British came back with a new proposal for regime change, stressing the threat of a Russian influence in Iran.

The result was that Kermit Roosevelt, then the station chief in Cairo for the Middle East, carried out a brilliant, organized coup in 1953, oiled by $100,000 in small Iranian bills that he brought with him in two suitcases that summer, which, for the first time, brought the Americans into the Iranian oilfield, led ultimately to the arrest and imprisonment of Mosaddeq, and laid the seeds for many of the resentments that we cope with today.

So that’s some of the background.

Given this situation where you had a lot of failed states and failed systems, we were wondering how that applies to the present American dilemma on exit strategies. It seems to me—and I’ll sketch this very briefly—that there are three exit strategies that one sees in our own review of the past.

The first is, get out. That happened in Egypt. That happened in Iraq. The British in both places were faced with military revolts that ended their own military influence in the area.

The second is cut-and-run. Cut-and-run had its most dramatic example in 1947, when, under the British-mandated rule in Palestine, there was a virtual civil war between the Zionists and the Palestinians, and you had 110,000 British troops—a tenth of their army—caught in the crossfire of civil war in a territory a third the size of Wales. Bevin was foreign secretary at the time and Attlee the prime minister. They decided to turn it over to the United Nations. They did. There was a civil war. There was a declaration proclaiming the independence of Israel, an invasion by the Arab countries, and the beginning of the situation the end of which we still cannot see.

The third, more positive, took place in Jordan, where, finally, there was a negotiated withdrawal of the British officers who had been commanding the Arab Legion that they had set up. The Hashemite dynasty succeeds as one of the kingdoms that our kingmakers established that still is viable and in power. But the reason that it succeeded is that Jordan, for all of its other merits, is poor in oil. Except for its geography, it has no vital strategic importance to either the British or the Americans or the players they have.

So here we are. We are faced with what the next president of the United States is going to do, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I throw open the floor to discussion on that point.

Questions and AnswersQUESTION: That was absolutely fascinating and filled in some of the areas, the background, that we thought we knew, but you clarified greatly. Since you ended with our current situation, would you say something about the possibilities of a united Iraq, especially since you emphasized that Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra had separate backgrounds, and, as you indicated, when there was some cooperation among the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds?

I have to say that this is a very timely question. Senator Biden a few years back wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times, along with Les Gelb, in which he proposed cutting Iraq up into three separate countries. He hasn’t mentioned that proposal lately. I think that enough has passed since he wrote the op-ed to show what the essential problem is.

The problem is that, particularly in Baghdad, the populations are intermixed, and without the most radical kind of ethnic cleansing, you cannot have three homogenous things.

One would hope—and this is a personal thing—that the United States, which, under the Federalist Papers, led the way in trying to create political frameworks in which different entities could coexist peacefully under a central government, would encourage some form of autonomy for these things and also bring about a compromise on the control of oil. That’s one area where we do have some leverage. I think this is one of the things that's going to be high on the agenda of the next president.

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: Just to address one thing, which is the Sunni-Shia split, in 1919, when the British were trying to work out the solution to how they were going to govern, under eventually what became a mandate, the Shia represented about half of the population of Iraq, about 25 percent were Sunni, and the other 25 percent were Kurds, Christians, and between 150,000 and 250,000 Jews, depending on who is counting and where they are counting, who were in Baghdad. Of course, those Jews have really disappeared now. Now it’s about 66 percent Shia, with the rest being divided up into Kurds and Sunni.

Gertrude Bell was really the British expert on the tribes—she wrote about the tribes. She spoke Persian. She spoke Arabic. She advised both the acting high commissioner, A.T. Wilson, and then Percy Cox, who was the high commissioner, on what to do about the government.

I found it quite interesting—and I think it made a big difference—that the Shia elders insisted that she be veiled and she insisted that she would not wear a veil. Basically, that cut off her access to the Shias. I don’t know why this hasn’t been remarked on before. But that threw her back on the Sunnis that she knew.

Now, who were these Sunnis? These were the people, for the most part, who had taken part with Faisal and Lawrence in the Arab revolt, many of them educated in what was then Constantinople, now Istanbul, and had been in the Ottoman Army. Some of them had come from Syria. They were educated city people, while most of the country were uneducated, rural Shia.

So this already set up a problem in government, which we are living with today. One of your speakers, Vali Nasr, gave a very interesting talk about a year and a half ago on the Shia revival. Basically, he said—which is evident—in this whole situation we have now, the big winners are the Shia, and they are going to have to be contended with. It's not going to end up with half-and-half power sharing with the Sunni; it's going to be a Shia government. Whether the country will hold together under that or not remains to be seen, but the Shia are not going to be settled into some sort of binational state.

KARL MEYER: I should add that one of the quotes that we came upon in our research showed that this problem was not fully understood by the people that were drawing the lines on the map. Do you want to read this quote?

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: One of the things that really annoyed Gertrude Bell, who was very well connected—she knew Cromer, she knew Curzon, she knew Churchill well. Churchill, of course, was quite a bit younger than she was at this point. She said, "Winston—I can't get him to understand what the difference is between the Shia and the Sunni."

Here's a Churchill memo: "Let me have about three lines as to Faisal's religious character," Faisal being Faisal number one, who became king of Iraq. "Is he a Shia with Sunni sympathies, or how does he square it? Which is the aristocratic high church and which the low church? What are the religious people of Karbala? I always get mixed up between the two."

Sounds familiar.

QUESTION: Could you discuss the religious composition of the Kurds, and the racial background of that, and the situation with Turkey and Iraq and the rest of the Middle East and Europe.

KARL MEYER: The Kurds are a non-Arabic people, although the most famous Kurd is commonly misperceived as an Arab, and that’s Saladin. The Kurds speak a language more related to Farsi, the Persian tongue, than to Arabic. But they are Sunnis, their religious formation. However, the Kurds form a distinct people that are spread into five different countries, five present-day countries. That's their misfortune.

They had a real grievance. Originally, the Allies promised the establishment of a Kurdish republic. This was, in fact, written into a treaty that the Allies agreed to at the end of World War I. Then they were denied it.

They felt that they were always the permanent underdogs, and they resented very much being ruled, in whatever country they were in—whether it was in Turkey, in southeastern Turkey—without adequate representation in the central government.

This problem persists to today.

QUESTIONER: What about the possibility of the Kurds getting their own—

KARL MEYER: The problem there is that the Turkish government has practically said that that's a casus belli, that a declaration of Kurdish independence would be regarded by them as so destabilizing in its effects on the territorial integrity of their own country, with a substantial 20 percent Kurdish minority, that they would not tolerate it. I think that's a red line. I think the Kurdish leadership in Iraq understands that. Nevertheless, in the popular mind, there's a lot of support for just what you said.

That’s another of the problems that whoever is the president is going to have to deal with.

QUESTION: When our government went into Iraq, there was a very denial that this had anything to do with oil. Absolutely not; it was all a question of getting rid of Saddam and all of those weapons of mass destruction that nobody found.

Would you please tell us what the real scenario was?

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: The two of us together were on the same page. We were both against the war in Iraq from the beginning, a lot due to the fact that we thought it was undoable. Even if there had been weapons of mass destruction, even if Saddam was a miserable person, it was not going to be possible to bring about regime change in Iraq, unless we put in our own Saddam. And that wasn't a likely thing to happen.

But we know some people in the oil business, and also reading a lot online, the people who were against the invasion of Iraq were the oil companies, because they were afraid it was going to upend Saudi Arabia. An earthquake in one part ends up with rumbles somewhere else.

So we thought, "Oh, no, it’s not really about oil." People would say it was about oil—no, no. But I think it was about oil, partially. Look at the new oil law that we have been trying to get through, which does give six American oil companies—to divide their revenue.

Karl has just reviewed a book by Peter Sluglett.

KARL MEYER: Yes, Peter Sluglett has written an excellent book called Britain in Iraq. He's a British-born professor at the University of Utah. Sluglett went through this and he said that at the time the British created Iraq, there were repeated official denials that oil had anything to do with it.

Lord Curzon said, "No. It's highly exaggerated." But Sluglett found that when he went into the internal correspondence in Whitehall between the political chiefs in the cabinet and their surrogates in Iraq, oil was very much on their minds. The British were extremely concerned about preserving their access to Middle East oil. They were determined for as long as possible to maintain control of the oil in the region.

So you had the official statements, the official denials, and the reality on the ground. I think it's the knowledge of this that creates the widespread cynicism that you sense in the Middle East and the refusal to take seriously these kinds of denials—"No, it's really about this." They will always say that it's always about oil or some other issue.

QUESTION: How do you see the relations between Iran and the Shia-dominated government of Iraq evolving? What kind of situation is that going to face our new president with?

KARL MEYER: That's, I think, one of the biggest questions on the table. I think that it’s an ironic fact that Ahmed Chalabi, who was one of the chief promoters of the intervention in Iraq, has become kind of a go-between between Iran and the Iraqi government.

Yes, there absolutely is going to be a rapprochement between a Shia-dominated Iraq and Iran. I think, again, it depends on how a president plays his cards, particularly if he can find some common interest between the Tehran authorities and the Baghdad authorities, who share a common interest in preventing a civil war, et cetera.

Tom Friedman had a column that I liked a lot this morning, in which he said that the collapse of oil prices has given the Americans greater leverage in dealing with Iran than they had before and that the rabid nationalists there may be in a more flexible mood when the new president comes in.

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: I think also in the 1980s war, when the Iranians fought with the Iraqi Shias, nationalism trumped religion. They were loyal to the Iraqi government, and many of them fought. A lot of the lower ranks were Shia.

But I think where you would have to worry is if we leave and there is some sort of civil war. Then the Shia are going to have to look to Iran, because the Saudis will be behind the Sunnis and the Turks will want to invade northern Iraq and sit on the Kurds. I think then you are looking at unity between the Iranian Shia and the Iraqi Shia. Who else are they going to look towards?

QUESTION: That was really quite marvelous. Thank you both very much. As you know, I have the book. It’s on my list next to read. I’m almost there.

I would like to ask a question which is an extension of what a previous questioner asked you. Not just the relationship between Shia in Iran and the Iraqi Shia, but the so-called Shia Crescent that is developing in the entire Middle East, which goes from Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah up in Lebanon, Syria, and even Hamas, which I don't think is Shia, but is supported by the Shia. How do you envision a future Middle East?

Then I have another quick question. What is the difference between getting out and cut-and-run?

KARL MEYER: I would like to comment first on this.

I would add to the list of countries that are allies of Tehran Bahrain, which has a Shia majority. Also the workforce in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, where the main oil exploration is going on, is predominantly Shia, too. So widespread through the Middle East—not only in the Middle East, but in Azerbaijan and elsewhere—there is a real Shia community.

I think this is one thing where the Saudi Arabians, as well as the other Sunnis, would be anxious, for their own interests, to reach some kind of amicable settlement as to what the rules of the game will now be.

As to your second question, as to the difference between cut-and-run and just pulling out, I think that there is a ray of hope in the agreement that seems to have been reached between the Bush Administration and the prime minister of Iraq on a timetable for withdrawal that is supposed to begin next spring, with the pullback of U.S. forces from the cities.

That is a hopeful thing, because the Iraqis themselves would be the ones that are orchestrating a realistic timetable. That holds some hope that you might have a Jordanian solution, a more positive outcome to the war.

But there is a joker in the pack, and that's SOFA, the Status of Forces Agreement. One of the things that caused real resentment, not just in Iraq, but in Iran, in Egypt, was a system going back to the Ottoman days of immunities given to foreigners. Building on these immunities are the agreements that the United States reaches with host countries wherever it has military bases. Key to these agreements is granting legal immunity to the serving personnel on the bases.

This is the sticking point right now between the United States—and there was a story, uncorroborated but interesting, that was published yesterday by the McClatchy papers saying that the United States has told the Iraqi government, "If you don’t agree to SOFA, the Status of Forces Agreement, we’ll just pull out December 31st, when our mandate ends, and just leave the rest to you," which sounds like a pretty risky—almost blackmail.

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: If you are interested in it, it's on Truthout—it was yesterday—this McClatchy newspaper.

QUESTION: I just note in passing that, alas, Mr. Philby's amassing of funds to put his son through school was hardly well spent, in the event, at least from the British point of view.

Let me ask a fanciful question, if I may. You make such a compelling case, the analogy of the British adventures—misadventures—in Egypt in the 19th century, the misconceptions and missteps going in, the length and cost of the occupation, the thought that the British would be welcomed with open arms as "democratizers" and so on and so forth. From the narrow, parochial—you mentioned one politician, Joe Biden—is there any traction in the policy community? Have you had any outlet whatsoever for making this historical argument that seems so important for the current situation?

I suppose it’s fanciful to think that a book of this scope and panorama would be on the shelf of many members of Congress. But is there a policy traction for you in making these compelling historical arguments?

KARL MEYER: Shareen and I were just at a Columbia seminar at which a seasoned U.S. diplomat in the area was saying many of the things we are talking about here today. There is a high level of people in the State Department—and I would put in that level Ryan Crocker, our ambassador in Iraq—who are fully aware of this history, who are Arabic speakers, and who are conversant with a lot of the minefields in the area. I would hope that whoever is president will give an ear to some of these people.

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: One of the things that he said—somebody asked, "What should be the first thing that the next president does?"—he said, “The next president should make an announcement that we are closing Guantanamo today.”

KARL MEYER: That should be his first announcement, yes. That’s what this senior ambassador said.

QUESTION: Picking up on that thread, from your extensive travels in that part of the world, do you have a sense of what president they would like to see in the White House?

I think we all know, but I would like your impressions.

KARL MEYER: Shareen and I were in Cairo and Alexandria in January. I can hardly exaggerate the fascinated fixation that people have with what’s happening in America. They can hardly believe that. You could not have someone with the mirror image of Barack Obama's background becoming president—a Copt becoming president—of Egypt. They are absolutely fascinated by it.

I think the problem is that the expectations are going to be so high that there is bound to be disappointment and a letdown when they discover that there is a certain continuity, particularly when it comes to strategic interests.

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: The problem is, none of us really know where the Middle East is going to be on the agenda, how far up it is. You look at Georgia, you look at Ukraine, you look at all sorts of tinderboxes that may go up, and other problems. You don’t know where this is going to ride and what they are going to pay attention to.

QUESTION: My question, to some extent, has been anticipated. I was going to ask if you could recite two or three recommendations you could make in respect of policy toward the Middle East to President Obama.

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: Close Guantanamo, close Guantanamo, close Guantanamo.

KARL MEYER: That would be a start. But I think it would be a wonderful thing if a president of the United States would try to summon a conclave of the spiritual leaders of all the great world faiths for a discussion of some of the issues of the use of violence in politics to see if you could not begin to develop a counter to the belief that jihadism is somehow mainstream Muslim religion, which it is not.

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: What you do see when you travel in the Middle East is how pervasive the conspiracy theories are. Mosaddeq said at the time of the coup, about the British, "You don’t know how evil they are."

Now we have replaced the British: "You don’t know how evil they are." We have supported some very nasty regimes. We supported torture in Iran with SAVAK. Egypt has had problems with the Muslim Brotherhood. We haven't been always on the right side there.

So when we do do torture and things like that, this just reinforces people who say that Americans are doing what everyone else is doing. We did have the moral high ground, but with rendition and torture and all the things that have been going on as a result of this war, it does really undermine our position.

That’s why I say, Guantanamo, close it.

QUESTION: I would be interested to know—there's obviously a lot of history to be undone. What we always hear is "our solution for that area," and it seems like there is an input and a lack of understanding of what the other side really wants. Do we have a good understanding of what the ambitions are of those countries and the regimes? There is obviously also a disconnect between the leadership and the people. The sort of public view is that they hate us all and they hate each other.

Is there more to it? Isn’t there a possibility for a bridge or some common ground to build on that?

KARL MEYER: There is a great asymmetry in our relations in the world, particularly on cultural and historical matters. People all around the world know who George Washington is and they know that Santa Claus is an American invention to market Christmas, whereas we, reciprocally, have very little knowledge, most of us, of the history and problems of the countries that we deal with. I think part of the problem is mass media. I’m thinking particularly of television.

I would make a proposal that one thing we could do—it would be a wonderful thing if, as part of the licensing arrangements that we give to cable companies, they would put aside one channel which each month would invite a country of the world to show the best of its television, so that we would have a chance to see what the people there say about themselves and their own past, to begin to break down the wall of ignorance.

Just to take one example. Mosaddeq's name is known everybody in the Middle East. Ninety-nine out of 100 Americans have never heard of him, even though he was the Man of the Year for Time magazine in 1951. One of the things that would be very helpful is, if a conversation is started with Iran, if an official U.S. representative would go to Mosaddeq's grave, as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation.

QUESTION: What is your prognosis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace? If you think that such a peace is possible in the foreseeable future, how would you imagine that peace would be organized?

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC: There's no short answer to that. I think the problem, as we all know, has been the settlements. The process was one thing, but then they kept building settlement after settlement after settlement. The only person that maybe could have gotten rid of those settlements is lying in a coma. That's Ariel Sharon. And Tony Blair has proved to be fairly ineffective so far.

I don't know how far up the agenda that will be on the next president's watch.

KARL MEYER: I would put in one small gleam of hope: That if the Israelis do form a new government, they have on the table Saudi Arabia's proposal that they and other Arab governments would recognize Israel, based on a return to the 1967 borders. You have the astonishing spectacle of the outgoing prime minister—he is still nominally prime minister—who has been a right-wing member of the government, now embracing the Saudi proposal and saying things that no Israeli prime minister has said before.

One wishes that Olmert had spoken up earlier on that. But I think there is a gleam of hope. Obviously, a lot of Israelis share Olmert's hope that some kind of breakthrough based on the Saudi formula might yet open the way to a peaceful settlement.

JOANNE MYERS: Shareen and Karl, I thank you once again for making history come alive.

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