Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
June 16, 2014
JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for joining us. As this is the last breakfast of the 2013-14 program year, I'd just like to take a moment and ask you to join me in thanking all those who have been so helpful in making the Public Affairs program so successful, including those who have taken your reservations, checked you in, poured your coffee and tea, helped you to find your seat, and also to Coco, Richard, Jake, and Mel, who have worked behind the scenes to make sure your comments are recorded and filmed for posterity.
It is a sincere pleasure to welcome Scott Anderson to this podium. As a journalist and author of both fiction and non-fiction, Scott is known for his turn of phrase, penetrating insights, and keen observations.
In his widely acclaimed book, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Scott vividly captures the ways in which the misdeeds and miscalculations of the past have created the anguish and complexity we see throughout the region today. Lawrence in Arabia was named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, The Seattle Times, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was also a National Book Critics Circle finalist and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year.
Among the many individual stories of World War I that will be told and retold for generations to come is that of Thomas Edward Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archeologist excavating ruins in the sands of Syria. By 1917 he was the most romantic figure of World War I, battling both the enemy and his own government to bring about the vision he had for the Arab people. Few characters in history can match him for adventure, intrigue, or sheer enigma. T. E. Lawrence was legendary even before he died.
What is different in this narrative from other biographies about Lawrence and his exploits during the Arab Revolt against the Turks is that Scott expands the familiar story by placing Lawrence in the context of other adventurers and spies who also played a role during the last stages of the First World War and exerted a great deal of influence in the region. With characters such as Curt Prüfer, a German diplomat who wanted to forment jihad against the British; Aaron Aaronsohn, a Romanian Jewish colonist in Palestine who fought for Britain as a way of furthering the Zionist cause; and William Yale, an American aristocrat who, as an agent of Standard Oil, was seeking access to lands that might be rich in oil and later ended up in the service of the State Department.
Scott shows us how individuals can both shape history and can, at the same time, be helpless before the dictates of great power and politics.
As global attention is drawn once again to Syria, Egypt, and now Iraq, it is arresting to look back and see a somewhat familiar picture of Western nations who gingerly stirred the pot and tried to influence the region that they were never able to master. There is little doubt that the Arab Revolt, the secret, great game to control the Middle East, and how Lawrence became Lawrence, remains one of the most epic periods in 20th century history, a period that continues to haunt us to this day.
To return to that critical time with new insight, please join me in welcoming our guest today, Scott Anderson.
SCOTT ANDERSON: Thank you very much.
I was told you all like to hear about ethical dilemmas so hopefully you're in for a treat because you have them in spades with Lawrence.
Just to set the stage slightly, Lawrence was an upper-middle class Brit. He went to Oxford and studied medieval military history.
Even as a boy growing up in Oxford, there was something a big peculiar about T. E. Lawrence. In particular, he would go to extreme lengths to test his stamina and endurance. Even as a young boy, 9 or 10 years old, he would go days without eating or sleeping, drinking water. He was very short. He was five foot three and a half. He would ride a bicycle for 70, 80 miles to a point of where he'd be thoroughly exhausted.
Where this took a slightly healthier form was when he was at Oxford working towards a senior thesis on medieval military history, in particular the Crusades. He decided that he was going to visit every Crusader castle in Greater Syria at the time. He was going to do it alone and on foot and during the summer recess when the Syrian interior can be 120 degrees.
The few Britons who had been Syria, and that he asked for advice, all told him he was mad, that he was going to die. Given Lawrence's personality, this probably acted as a goad. At the age of 20, he went off to Syria. He walked 1,200 miles across the interior of Syria.
I think there's something like 57 Crusader castles. Lawrence made a point of going to every one of them. Because he was so tiny, he was going into areas of Syria where they'd maybe never seen a Westerner before. He looked like a 14 year-old kid. Wherever he went, people took care of him. It really began his love affair with the Arab world.
Immediately after returning and graduating from Oxford he wheedled his way into an archaeological dig sponsored by the British Museum in northern Syria at the Hittite ruins of Carchemish, which today is precisely on the Syrian/Turkish border near Gaziantep.
He spent the next four years of his life primarily at Carchemish. He was one of only two Britons permanently on the archaeological site along with 200 local workers. In addition to seeing to the scientific duties, what Lawrence really spent most of his time doing and where his greatest interest was, was in studying the way Arab society functioned.
He would constantly interview the local workers. He would go to their homes and he wrote very detailed charts plotting out the local clan and tribal structure and probably came to an understanding of the importance of that clan and tribal structure to a degree that very few Europeans had at the time, or today for that matter when we look at the events in the Middle East.
Lawrence intended to stay on Carchemish for as long as the funding lasted. He called it the happiest time of his life in hindsight, the four years he spent there. That ended with the outbreak of World War I in August of 1914.
Because Lawrence was so short, he was actually ineligible to join the British military. In the initial war euphoria, so many men enlisted in Great Britain that they raised the height limit to join to, I believe, five foot five and a half so he couldn't join up.
Also, Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, didn't come into the war in August of 1914. They actually came in in November, so for the first few months of the war Lawrence was a civilian mapper at the British military headquarters in London.
Finally, when Ottoman Turkey came into the war at the beginning of November, in recognition of his expertise in the region, he was press-ganged into the military. He was made a second lieutenant and he was dispatched to Cairo. The British controlled Egypt and Cairo was going to be the military headquarters for the British campaign against the Ottomans.
For the next few years, Lawrence sat behind a desk. He and the other men in the small military intelligence unit in Cairo were constantly urging the generals in Egypt to make alliances with Arab progressives and Arab tribes that chafed under Ottoman rule. They were largely ignored. The British generals in Egypt were intent on waging the same conventional, frontal assault war in the Middle East that already proved so disastrous on the western front.
Where everything changed was with the start of the Arab Revolt in the summer of 1916. The revolt was started by Emir Hussein of the Hejaz, the Hejaz being a region of west-central Arabia. But more significant, Hussein was the spiritual guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
It was a very important alliance for the British to make because it inoculated them against the charge raised by the Turks and by the Germans that they were coming into the Middle East as Christian crusaders. To have an alliance with Hussein very much inoculated them from that.
In return for Hussein raising the revolt, the British had made a secret deal with him, giving the Arabs sweeping independence, for virtually the entire Arab world, with the exception of one small area around Basra, in present-day southern Iraq, where oil had been discovered and the British were exploiting it. They wanted a 10-year or 20-year—it was left vague how long—but basically a lease-holding of that region of Iraq. Then there was a small corner of what at the time was northwestern Greater Syria—Lebanon and just above it—that they wanted to exclude because the French were interested in having it.
The revolt started in June of 1916. Hussein's forces, mainly led by his four sons, who were the battlefield commanders, seized Mecca, seized the Red Sea port of Jeddah. But then it largely foundered. They had caught the Turks by surprise, so in the first few days they had taken a couple of cities, but then it foundered.
Lawrence first went to Arabia in October, five months later. He went pretty much as a lark. He took time off from his desk job in Cairo to accompany a friend who was going over to see if there was some way to jump-start the revolt. Lawrence, on his first trip, was only there for 10 days, and it was really 10 days that changed history.
He managed to meet all four of Hussein's sons, the battlefield commanders, and probably most significantly—he was 28 years old at this point, and a very, very junior officer—he decided that what the revolt needed was an animating personality; what he called a "prophet of war." He decided that prophet of war was Hussein's third son, Faisal. He was one of the very first British officers to meet Faisal, and he was the first British officer to be allowed to travel inland in Arabia, in the Holy Land.
Lawrence went back to Cairo, but very quickly he was sent back over to act as temporary liaison to Faisal, and that posting then became permanent.
Lawrence was a man just born to this unique environment and this unique moment. I think it really comes down to two things, one being what I had mentioned before about him having studied the clan and tribal structure in Syria. Arabia, certainly the Hejaz being that much more conservative at the time, those ties were even more important in a place like the Hejaz than they had been in Syria. He understood the way you had to knit together a rebel fighting force—and it was not at all the way a Western officer trained in conventional ideas of how you raise an army would have thought.
It's a complicated process of sitting down with tribal elders and sheiks, and forging alliances, solving blood feuds that had been going on, in some cases, for centuries. It was a very labor-intensive, very slow process. Certainly, Faisal was the main person doing this, but Lawrence was very much his trusted lieutenant.
I think the other thing was that he had studied medieval military history, and war in early 20th century Arabia looked a lot like war in 14th century Europe. It revolved around these primal issues of an army on the move—where does it get water? Where does it get forage for its animals? Again, a classically trained British officer, I think would have been—in fact, proved to be—quite at sea, the people who had preceded Lawrence.
But Lawrence harbored—and here we're getting to the ethical dilemma—a guilty secret. What he knew, because of his position in military intelligence in Cairo, was that five months after the British had made this concord with Hussein, promising Arab independence for virtually the entire Arab world, they had entered into a secret agreement with the French, their chief ally in the war, and the Russians.
In that secret agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, basically the future Arab independent nation was going to be relegated to the wastelands of the Arabian Peninsula—oil had not been discovered in the Arabian Peninsula at the time—and virtually all the cultural and economic places of value—modern day Iraq, Greater Syria, and today what would be Lebanon, Jordan, Israel—those were all to be carved up between the British and the French. Of course, the British didn't bother to tell Hussein any of this.
After Lawrence had been in Arabia for about four months, he took it upon himself to tell Faisal about the existence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Under Sykes-Picot, Syria, which was certainly the cultural and political heart of the Arab world, was to go to the French. By telling Faisal about this secret treaty, he was basically telling Faisal, "Do not trust in the promises of my government. If you want Syria, you're going to have to fight for it."
By doing so, technically Lawrence committed treason; divulging the existence of a secret pact with a third party at a time of war, it really doesn't get much more treasonous than that. There's a question of why he did it.
Again, he'd only been in Arabia for four or five months. I think part of it was that Lawrence saw himself as a kind of knight errant. He had been fascinated with the tales of King Arthur's court, as a kid, and I think he saw himself as the outsider, coming in to free this oppressed people.
But I think another thing was, for Lawrence, he was out in the field, he was helping recruit people to fight for a cause that he knew they were almost certain to be betrayed in the end. He was getting tribes to ally with Faisal, with this idea of Arab independence, and knowing about the secret deal.
The interesting thing is, I think there was something absolutely unique about the British at the time. I think in any of the other warring factions, Lawrence would have been put in front of a firing squad. In the British culture at the time, there was very much still this notion that a man's word was his bond. Even among senior British officers who, in a lot of cases had disdain for the Arab cause and a very low opinion of their fighting power, there was still this cleft of disgust that their own government was doing this double deal. I think it's very clear that Lawrence was probably protected. Certainly, some of his superiors knew that he had told Faisal but I think he was protected. I thing, again, in any other country, this would not have happened. There's something uniquely British about all this.
Lawrence's second act—it probably doesn't rise to the level of treason but certainly was disobedience—was his campaign against the city of Aqaba. For those of you who've seen the movie, Aqaba is the dramatic centerpiece of David Lean's 1962 movie. It's considered one of those astonishing military feats of World War I. He led this very small Arab army. It went 600 miles through the desert to fall on Aqaba from behind. All the Turks' trench lines and strong houses and weaponry was all faced to the sea, where they thought the attack was going to come from, the only place conceivable attack could come from. They, instead, fell on Aqaba from behind.
But it was also a political triumph because what Lawrence knew was the British and French had been talking about taking Aqaba. Aqaba is the furthest, most northern most port in the Red Sea. It's on a little inlet. If you look on a map, it appears to be the gateway into Greater Syria. As the French and the British started talking about doing an amphibious landing in Aqaba, Lawrence realized that if the British and French took Aqaba, they could then bottle up the Arab Revolt in Arabia and prevent it from spreading to Syria.
He basically wanted to foil his own government. When he set out for the Aqaba campaign, two months through the desert, nobody in the British Army knew where he was headed or what he was going to do. It was basically a sleight of hand on his part.
The first anybody in the British hierarchy knew about the capture of Aqaba was when Lawrence showed up about five days, six days after the town had been captured. He came across the Sinai Peninsula on a camel, arrived in Cairo with this astonishing news that Aqaba had fallen. He weighed 78 pounds when he got to Cairo. He just wasted away in the desert. He talks in his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, about how he was led into the British commander-in-chief's office, in Cairo, barefoot and wearing this robe that was in rags. By Lawrence's great good fortune, the commander was Edmund Allenby. He had just arrived two weeks earlier. He had replaced another British general.
Lawrence proceeded to basically sell Allenby a bill of goods. Lawrence was the only British officer who had been in the interior of Syria. He was riding around on the coattails of this triumph he had just had at Aqaba. He vastly exaggerated the Arab rebels' fighting capability and the number of Arabs in the field, who would join if the rebellion spread to Syria. He basically pitched this idea to Allenby that, as the British Army advanced through, along Palestine, on the western edge of Syria, the Arab rebels and Faisal would go along the inland side and they would form a pincer movement on the Turks.
Again, because nobody knew what was happening in Syria, Allenby bought it. By doing this, what Lawrence hoped was, basically, they could cheat out the French. If the Arab rebels could get to Damascus, the capital of Syria, before the British, even, then they could set up a provisional government and declare it as part of an independent Arab nation.
This was the summer of 1917, when Aqaba was taken. For the next year, the war, this grand offensive that Lawrence had imagined, didn't really happen. Allenby kept having troops siphoned off to go and fight down on the western front. During this year, Lawrence became more and more obsessed with this idea that they had to get to Damascus first and more and more, I think, unhinged in the field—he still knew that the probability was that even if they got to Damascus first, it was probably a lost cause. That was the one possibility they had for Arab independence but it was still a rather forlorn hope.
Also, just from bouts he was involved in, Lawrence became increasingly hardened and increasingly cruel at times. He would go into battle and tell the men with him to take no prisoners. For men who would be so badly wounded that they might slow advances of a highly mobile war on camels, he would administer coups de grâce (mercy killings), too. Again, for people who have seen the movie, one of the things the movie captures very well is the gradual unhinging of Lawrence.
In September of 1918, the grand offensive finally comes off. The British Army moves up through Palestine, through modern day Israel. The Arab rebels move along the inland desert, basically through modern day Jordan, and the Turks are slaughtered.
The Arab vanguard gets to Damascus simultaneously with the British Army. Lawrence establishes a provisional Arab government with Faisal at the head, and basically takes over the city, in the name of the Arab rebel cause.
Two days later, Allenby arrives in Damascus and there's this climatic meeting at the Hotel Victoria in Damascus, which there's no written record of, but, it was Faisal, Allenby, and Lawrence, and a couple of other British generals. Lawrence says, "I must banish this provisional government," and Allenby goes, "No, it's going to the French."
The next day Lawrence leaves Damascus, never to return. A city that he used as a battle cry for two years, he would never see again. He goes back to England. This is very early October of 1918. World War I is coming to a rapid close. The Austro-Hungarians and the Germans are both collapsing very quickly. Lawrence knows that there's going to be a peace conference afterwards. He gets attached as Faisal's liaison to the Paris Peace Conference.
For months, he desperately appeals to people in his own government to stay by the promises made to the Arabs. As time goes on, he finds fewer and fewer allies in the British government. He appeals to the Americans, to Woodrow Wilson. Wilson has come to Paris with his grand talk of self-determination, independence for small nations and small peoples. It's very clear, eventually that the Americans aren't going to risk their standing with Britain and France over the Arabs.
The most remarkable attempted alliance Lawrence makes is with Chaim Weizmann, who's the head of the English Zionist Federation. In the Weizmann-Faisal Agreement, in return for the Zionist recognizing the Arab claim to Syria, Faisal will recognize or encourage increased Zionist or Jewish settlement in Palestine, with the idea that eventually it's going to become—there was no talk about it being a Jewish state, but certainly there would be Jewish primacy or Zionist primacy in the region. That agreement got torpedoed because the French were absolutely adamant that they were going to take Syria.
By the summer of 1919, there's this awful irony that at the same time Lawrence is becoming this matinée idol in Britain—the American journalists/huckster, Lowell Thomas, had put on this lecture show about the war in the Middle East. It featured both Allenby and Lawrence. He was the first one to come up with the name, "Lawrence of Arabia." It became this massive sensation throughout England. Very quickly, Thomas figured out that no one really cared about Allenby. So it just became Lawrence of Arabia. Over a million Britons saw this show, including the king and queen of England. Lawrence was very famous throughout England.
At the same time, by his obstructionism of pushing the Arab cause, he was seen as the enemy within by the British government to a point where he was finally essentially banned from the Paris Peace Conference. He was barred from having any further contact with Faisal. When that happened, the betrayal went forward.
Finally, very early in the fall of 1919, the British and French carved up the region between themselves. Very much as Lawrence had predicted, the whole region immediately went up in flames. The Arab world was outraged. They had traded their Ottoman and Turkish masters for European ones. There were riots and revolts all the way from Algeria to Iraq.
After about six months of war throughout the region, Winston Churchill was hastily put in as the colonial secretary with the idea that he was going to put out these regional fires. One of the first people he turned to was T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence initially wanted nothing to do with helping out Churchill but Churchill was a very forceful personality. Lawrence finally agreed that he would work with Churchill for a year. In that year, Faisal was put on the throne of Iraq. He became the king of Iraq. The nation of Jordan was created out of the British Palestinian mandate.
At the end of that year, Lawrence, true to his word, stopped working for the colonial secretary. He legally changed his name. At the end of the war, he'd been lieutenant colonel. He petitioned the British military, the RAF [Royal Air Force], to go and re-enlist as a private and he insisted on going back in as a private. What he told a friend was that he never wanted to be put into a position of responsibility again. For the next 17 years, Lawrence lived in obscurity. He actually had to change his name twice. His first legal name change was discovered by the media. So he changed it a second time and stayed as a private.
At one point, he was a store clerk for the RAF in an obscure little base in India. Clearly, I think, he clearly suffered from post-traumatic stress distorder. He had periods of deep depression and thoughts of suicide. I think he became a broken man. He had fought so hard for this cause in the Middle East, and had been betrayed in the end. Then he went on and he ended up dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935.
QUESTION: William Verdone.
Is he not buried in St. Paul's Cathedral?
SCOTT ANDERSON: No, he's not. There's a bust of him, but he's actually buried in a little churchyard in Dorset.
QUESTIONER: Now I want to touch upon something that might be insensitive. Were there any allegations that he was gay?
SCOTT ANDERSON: Yes, there were. I skipped over it because we didn't have a lot of time.
He came from a very twisted family. He had a very tortured relationship, especially with his mother.
My own suspicion is that probably he was a severely repressed gay, but so severely repressed that he never practiced. He was never linked—he had a very close relationship with a young boy at Carchemish, the archaeological ruins. That boy died during the war.
But man or woman, there was really never any evidence that I ever found convincing that he actually had a sexual relationship with anybody.
QUESTION: Peter Russell.
How is he seen among Arab scholars and the public? How is he seen among activists in the Arab movement in that period?
SCOTT ANDERSON:It's a good question. In fact, I was just in Jordan last month. I was doing an article on the legacy of T. E. Lawrence for Smithsonian magazine. The interesting thing I found in Jordan—I would ask people again and again. It's such a polite culture, invariably the way people would phrase it, they would say, "Well, some people think that he came to the Arab world and he was a genuine friend of the Arabs. But other people think that he actually came as a British agent, and this was a trick all along." Invariably if I would say, "Okay, those are the two ways people think. What do you think?" They would say, "He was a British agent. It was a trick all along."
I think that there's something quite generational about that. I think there's so much cynicism now, certainly among young people. I think that you would find very, very few, if any, young Arabs who have any sort of fond view of Lawrence.
On top of that—and of course I'm sort of contributing to this—going back to probably David Lean's movie, understandably there's this annoyance—probably a stronger word than "annoyance." This idea that the Arab Revolt is the Arab "creation story," and why is this little 5'3" Brit always at center stage of that story? Of course, one of the reasons was that by and large it was a pre-literate society. There's very few written records of it, so who writes the history dominates the history.
I do think that the diminished view of Lawrence in that region now is symptomatic of the diminished view that's held of the West in general.
QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.
Given your research into previous years in the Middle East, and part of your title, how do you assess what's going on from your own personal experience as a war correspondent in the Middle East, with this current crisis of ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and everything else?
SCOTT ANDERSON: Certainly what I've felt for the past, at least, year is that—and I probably didn't think of this when the so-called Arab Spring started, but I certainly feel it now—that what we're actually seeing, in one place after another, is the dismantling of those artificial borders that were placed in the region at the end of World War I.
The British created Iraq out of three provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq today is three countries. I think people want to maintain the fiction that it's somehow going to all knit together. I think the fiction has been exposed in the past few days. But it's essentially operated for a long time now, certainly as two countries, and now between the Shia and the Sunni that's ripping apart.
Libya has been three countries for the last two to three years and, again, under the Ottomans it was these three different, what they called, vilayets (administrative divisions). I think that that's really what's going on now, and I think it's probably irreparable.
JOANNE MYERS: Meaning that?
SCOTT ANDERSON: I think it's going to continue to fracture.
JOANNE MYERS: Will this fracturing result in separate states?
SCOTT ANDERSON: It's either separate states or de facto separate states. Certainly, Iraqi Kurdistan, they don't need to come out and declare their independence and they know that if they did declare their independence it would freak out the Turks, so there's no reason to. They have de facto independence. They're getting oil receipts, and they can share a little bit with Baghdad if they need to, but they've set up their own border. You've seen the efficacy of that border, just in the past few days.
Again, in Libya, maybe the southern region will declare its independence.
It's just going to be this fracturing out, I think.
QUESTION: Nawaf Salam, the ambassador of Lebanon.
Two or three very quick comments.
First, I understand because of the short time you were unable to introduce the other two main characters of the book. It's not a book about Lawrence, but Lawrence plus two, which would have told us a bit more about the struggle for power that was taking place in the region.
Second, the Arabs who felt defeated because of the British promise through the famous McMahon-Hussein correspondence—the British did not live up to it, but there were two other promises then made—a promise to the Arabs; there was the Balfour promise to the Zionist movement; and the Sykes-Picot agreement. Two were fulfilled, and one was not.
This is why this is a very formative period in the consciousness or unconsciousness of the Arabs today. They still feel they were double-betrayed at that period.
The third comment has to do with the boundaries. I see your point, that the so-called Sykes-Picot—or not really the Sykes-Picot ones, but rather the 1919 boundaries—are falling now. I think there's another way, also, of looking at it. If these boundaries fall, most probably we'll be seeing more chaos, more instability in the region.
The problem is that there are internal boundaries in each of these states, preventing a greater power-sharing. In all the so-called Arab Mashroq, from Syria to Iraq, Lebanon, if the internal boundaries fall, we may have greater power-sharing, greater democracy, and maybe stability.
SCOTT ANDERSON: I agree. If you had to look for a silver lining to what I think is happening in the region today, maybe you can see that 20 years up the road it will go the way of the former Yugoslavia—that there will be this kind of federated idea. But I think we're a long way from that happening. I think there's going to be a lot more chaos and killing before that happens.
JOANNE MYERS: Did you want to comment a little bit on the other characters that you mentioned in your book, and their roles?
SCOTT ANDERSON: The reason Lawrence is the central character, and why the book's named after him, is that Britain did carry the war effort for the allies in the region, and they were the primary creators of the peace afterwards and Lawrence was intimately connected to both the war and the peace.
In addition to that, there are actually three other characters. One is a Jewish settler from Romania, an agronomist whose family came and settled in Palestine when he was a young boy. He ended up, during the war, setting up a Jewish spy ring, funneling military secrets to the British in Egypt.
There was an American named William Yale, from the Yale University family, who ended up going out oil prospecting right before the war with Standard Oil of New York. He ended up spending three years in Jerusalem. The Americans didn't come into the war until 1917, so he was in Ottoman-controlled Jerusalem. Then when the Americans came into the war, he became the first American—the only American—field intelligence officer in the Middle East during the war, while also secretly on the payroll of Standard Oil.
Then the last one is Curt Prüfer, who was an Oriental scholar, but actually a rather similar biography to Lawrence. He was a master linguist, he had served at the German Embassy in Cairo before the war, and he came back during the war as the head German counter-intelligence officer in Syria, for the Germans. He ended up surviving the war. He went on to become the Nazis' ambassador to Brazil during World War II.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
One thing that's clear from reading 20th century history is that the British do not do good post-colonial maps. They screwed up in India as well.
I'm interested in the backstory on Iraq. I agree with everything you said about it crumbling and so on. How was it that the map came to be drawn in that way? What were the political considerations? What was the embedded culture of the British bureaucracy or Foreign Service that contrived to draw the map in this way?
SCOTT ANDERSON: In a nutshell, oil. In the intervening years between the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, where the British had asked for this concession of the Basra area in southern Iraq, oil had been discovered up in the north, up in the Mosul and Kirkuk area.
There was this massive scramble on for the next big oil find. This was a time when the combustion engine was just taking over the world, so the British wanted that oil area, too. They fashioned this country together—these three regions that they wanted.
Interestingly Lawrence, who was so prescient about so many things—and he didn't know Iraq particularly well; he had spent most of his time in Syria and to the west—but in the fall of 1919 he wrote that unless the British mended their ways in Iraq, he saw war coming there in March of 1920. He was off by two months. It actually came in May, and the British were caught completely off-guard, as usual. They thought that everything was quiescent, and they would dominate this place. It was an incredibly vicious, ugly fight. The British dropped gas from planes on tribes. Ten thousand people died.
I do think the other odd thing about the British at that time, or this region, is—you know the old cliché about how generals are always fighting the last war—they were obsessed with this idea of controlling the land routes to British India. What they were always worried about was Russia. So part of this idea of wanting this territory was to prevent the Russian hordes from coming down into India. It seems all quite fanciful now, but that was clearly a concern, throughout.
One of the ideas was that they wanted this land bridge from Iraq all the way over to current-day Israel, and there would be oil pipelines across to Israel. But there was so much of this late imperial chessboard stuff.
QUESTION: Don Simmons.
To what extent, if at all, did the Shiites participate in the campaigns of Lawrence, in the hopes for Damascus?
Secondly, does the dislike and sense of betrayal by colonial powers linger as strongly today in Shiite hearts and minds as it does with Sunnis?
SCOTT ANDERSON: Because of where the war was waged, and where Lawrence was, he worked almost exclusively with Sunni tribes. There was a campaign that at first was an absolute disaster for the British in Iraq, and the first thing they did when they came ashore in Basra—actually, a British Indian army came ashore in Basra, which is a Shia stronghold. The Shia tribes also wanted independence from the Ottomans, and the British completely snubbed them, and ended up being slaughtered as a result. This was during World War I. This was in 1916.
As far as today, I think throughout the world there's this distrust of motives, reliability of the Western world.
It's funny. I've encountered this throughout the region—and it's something most people probably here have forgotten—but I guess it was 2006, there was this brief little period where the Bush administration decided that the answer to the Middle East was democracy, and spreading democracy. Condoleezza Rice went and gave a speech espousing these American ideals of democracy in the Arab world.
That lasted about four months, until someone figured out that if you actually have democracy in large parts of the Middle East, it's not going to be the Western-educated progressives who go to embassy cocktail parties who are going to take over. It's going to be the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah and Hamas, so that idea got reeled back very quickly.
It's remembered in the region, and it comes across in talk of many other things as a cynical little move by the American government at the time. People have very long memories there.
QUESTION: Krishen Mehta.
As you may know, Secretary of State Kerry announced this morning that American drone strikes may be an option in Iraq. As a follow-up to the question earlier, what are the implications from an Arab perspective of this deeper involvement by the United States again, after the 2003 engagement? What would be your reaction to such a decision by the American government?
SCOTT ANDERSON: I think this administration—I don't know that there's really any policy anymore in the region. I think that it's just a purely reactive policy. There's certainly nothing proactive or preemptive.
At the same time, I think that they realize that the situation is degenerating very, very quickly. I think what you're going to see—and you could see this as early as today—is, in light of the horrific pictures yesterday of ISIS executing all the Iraqi soldiers, you're going to start seeing Shia militias attacking just random Sunni civilians, especially males in the cities, and that's exactly what ISIS wants. They want this polarization to continue.
I think what happens again and again—and I think Kerry and Obama are sophisticated enough to realize this—is that whenever you see the American hand behind any faction in the region, it automatically hurts that group. Then they're seen as lackeys of the Americans.
My personal feeling is this thing is probably degenerating so quickly that Maliki needs to do something. But I don't think it's going to help.
QUESTION: In reading your book, in the history they deal with tribes. Today, we deal with the clergy in Iran, Iraq, many of the other countries. Do you think that democracy versus the clergy can ever take hold?
SCOTT ANDERSON: To answer your question directly, I don't think it's clergy. I think it's more that clans and tribes are the fundamental block in the Arab world.
I was just traveling around with this Jordanian man, college-educated. And this is Jordan, which is a very sophisticated country. We got to talking about the tribalism and clans, and he was very loyal to the Jordanian government, but he said, "If ever it came to it, I would choose my clan, my tribe, over the kingdom. That's my first loyalty."
If that's true in a place like Jordan, I think it's even more true in other places. Certainly it's more true in Iraq. It always has been. This was something that the American government was warned of in 2003 by people in the region and the few Americans who knew Iraq.
I agree with this idea. I think looking long-term what has to happen is I think the nation-state idea in the Western concept of it—it hasn't really worked and it's not going to work.
It's this idea of a federated structure where power devolves in both directions more down to the local level and then more if it's economic planning or diplomatic representation, it's more on a regional level. I think that's the only glimmer of hope you can see.
JOANNE MYERS: I I just want to thank you so much for telling us more about Lawrence.
SCOTT ANDERSON: My pleasure.