Thursday, August 8, 2013

An interview with Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East is ostensibly the story of T.E. Lawrence's work in the Middle East during World War I- but you've got to know that a 500 page book is going to cover a little more than that. Scott Anderson paints a picture of the stale Ottoman Empire that finally fulfills its centuries-old destiny as the Sick Man of Europe and comes tumbling down with all of the violence you'd imagine something that large and diseased would cause. There to acquire as much as they could were the British, French and later the Americans. Can we forgive them for making such a mess because they were preoccupied in Europe?

I'm grateful that Anderson took time to talk to me about not only Lawrence but also the Scramble for Africa, the other Western adventurers who connived in the region, Woodrow Wilson, the unraveling of the modern Middle East, and what, if anything, the West can do to fix what we broke.
Why is T.E. Lawrence’s personality so important when we consider his achievements?
Lawrence endured an extreme crisis of conscience in Arabia, torn between serving Great Britain and the Arab rebels whom he had joined in the field. What made this crisis acute was that, due to his position in the military intelligence apparatus in Cairo, Lawrence knew full well that the Arabs were probably going to be betrayed by Britain at the end of the war. As a result, he placed himself in a kind of fragile intermediary role, which also meant technically committing treason by informing the Arabs of the secret deal cut between Britain and France. Lawrence was able to do this—and to sufficiently cover his tracks to avoid being caught out—primarily for two reasons: 1) his utter disdain for military culture and Britain's imperial schemes, which also meant he wasn't going to simply "obey orders", and 2) he was a master bureaucratic infighter. Due to his highly-sensitive position in military intelligence – virtually nothing was so classified as to be beyond his purview—he knew where all the principal power blocs in the British military and political spheres lay, who was allied or opposed to whom, and he masterfully manipulated these blocs and personalities to get what he wanted. Even more, he was able to do so without the finger of blame ever being pointed back to him. Put in a less exotic environment, say in the corporate world, this is a guy you would never want to be in competition or rivalry with, because he would outmaneuver you before you'd even realized it!

Why is the story of a “sideshow of a sideshow” from the beginning of the last century relevant right now?
What is happening in the Middle East today is a final unraveling of the arbitrary borders and divisions put in place at the end of World War I by the Western powers. These lines were drawn with little to no thought of what actually constituted cohesive political units—or nations—but rather to what most benefited the Western powers—specifically Great Britain and France—from an economic standpoint. It should also be said that these powers gave shockingly little thought to the process—they were far more exercised about rearranging the European chessboard—because the Middle East was a sideshow and no one anticipated it would become the strategic center of the universe within a few decades' time. While these arbitrary lines held for nearly a century—first through colonial control and then by extremely repressive military and/or dynastic regimes—the passions ignited by the Iraq war and now by the so-called "Arab Spring" revolts means an end to them. We are already seeing the forces of disintegration at work in Iraq, which will soon become essentially three nations (although American administrations will still pay lip-service to the idea of it being unified), and in Libya, where the flourishing of the regional divide that has always lain under the surface is rapidly leading to de facto east and west mini-states in the post-Qaddafi era.

Some of the most maddening moments in the book were when Lawrence or even some of his out-of-touch superiors called out problems with burgeoning World War One agreements: the agreement the British negotiated with the Zionists would lead to conflict with the Arabs; the Saud family was reactionary and unpopular with many in the region; and ceding control of Syria to France was going to lead to continuing conflict. But ultimately those agreements or principles prevailed. Why?
I think it largely goes to my answer up above, which is that no one in a position of power at the end of World War I really gave the Middle East a lot of thought. Or put a slightly different way, they simply didn't care: the Middle East was the divvying-up ground, with concessions made or favors granted to one or another power there (and again, we're mainly talking about Britain and France, but also Italy and Greece) in order to achieve consensus for the "more important" postwar arrangements in Europe. One other point to this. To truly understand the blithe arrogance with which the European powers regarded the Middle East at this time, one must look at the imperial event which immediately preceded it, the so-called "Scramble for Africa," in which virtually the entire African continent was conquered and subjugated in a mere 30-year period. Certainly the imperial powers were aware of how the lines they had drawn in Africa cut across tribal and ethnic lines, but who cared? It wasn't as if the indigenous populations were in a position to do anything about it. I think this had a huge effect on the European imperial mindset when looking at the Middle East, that these were hapless "little brown people" that they could subjugate and divide up as they saw fit. In that, they guessed very wrong.

Lawrence is the star of your book, but you spend a significant amount of time on three other men: the German Curt Prufer, the American William Yale and the Jewish Aaron Aaronsohn. Why do they deserve a spotlight in the story of how the modern Middle East was formed?
One of the little epiphanies I had in first thinking about writing on Lawrence, the challenge of saying something new (there have been literally scores of biographies of him), came when I decided to look at the core riddle of his life. In a nutshell, how did a 28-year-old Oxford scholar without a single day of military training go off to Arabia and become not just a leader of the Arab rebels but a crucial player in the geopolitics of the region? The answer: because no one in a position of authority—and I'm thinking specifically of the British here—was paying much attention. All their attention was focused on Europe. From that little breakthrough, it occurred to me if that inattention was true about Britain, by far the biggest imperial player in the region, then it must have been true about the other competitors as well. With that idea in mind, I then began searching around for other spies/intelligence agents who might have operated in the Middle Eastern theater, and eventually came across Prufer, Aaronsohn and Yale—in Yale's case, literally the only American field intelligence officer in the entire Middle East. Like Lawrence, these other men were all brilliant, ambitious and utterly ruthless. They didn't achieve Lawrence's fame, but each had a profound influence on their nation's (or, in Aaronsohn's case, the Zionist movement's) policy and standing in the region and a hand in shaping the Middle East of today.

Most people don’t know about the atrocities inflicted on the Armenians during the First World War, but it comes up quite a bit in your book. How important was the fate of the Armenians to the characters in your book?
I think it was especially important to the Jews, in that as another frequently-distrusted religious minority within the Ottoman Empire, they feared they could easily be the next group to suffer the Armenians' fate. This helped fuel Allied anti-Ottoman propaganda in general, and also provided a guy like Aaronsohn with a certain plausibility when he raised an international alarm by claiming (quite inaccurately) that the Jews in Palestine were about to be purged.

One of your subtler points, I thought, was that the Jews weren’t the only ones suffering in the Ottoman Empire and Europe. The Armenians did very badly, as did some Arab groups, as did other ethnicities, but they got nothing or close to it. Why is that important when we consider this period and region?
I think the end-result of the selling-out of the Arabs at the end of World War I was to create a culture of resentment and grievance against the West (again, primarily directed at Britain and France, but also at the United States for its failure to intervene) that continues to be felt throughout the entire region. And because the West has no choice but to stay involved in that region (oil), it will continue to suffer the repercussions.

Is it fair to say that you were more damning of Woodrow Wilson than even Mark Sykes (co-author of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement)?
That probably is true. I have to say my view of Wilson underwent a rather dramatic overhaul over the course of writing this book, that where before I regarded him as a kind of high-minded intellectual done in by his own unwillingness to compromise his ideals, I now feel that his flaws were actually a lot more base, that he was extremely vindictive (in the words of his private secretary, "he's a good hater") and steeped in a sanctimonious worldview that largely derived from his ignorance of that world. More to the point, he made matters worse in the Middle East. At least the British and French leaders knew they were operating completely out of their own national self-interest. By his grand talk of recognizing the rights of "small nations" and self-rule, Wilson dramatically raised expectations among native peoples everywhere that the United States would stand against the imperial designs of the European powers, but then he turned around and did nothing. There are a number of other things about Wilson—his decision to resegregate the American civil service, for example—that have left me wondering why he continues to enjoy such an esteemed position in American history.

If we (Britain, France, the US et al) "broke" the region, what can we do to fix it a century later?
To be honest, I'm really not sure there's much we (the West) can do at this point to fix it, because the divide operates on so many levels—political, ideological, cultural—and much like the blue-red state division in this country, it seems to be growing wider all the time. One initiative that would help would be for the West to broker/force a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, although even this would not be the regional panacea some might imagine; the current turmoil in the Middle East now far transcends the Israeli question. Besides any Israel/Palestine settlement would require the American government to put serious pressure on Israel to make major concessions, which is simply not going to happen under either a Democrat or Republican administration. Sorry, but nobody ever went broke being a pessimist about the Middle East!


Scott Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador and many other strife-torn countries. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, his work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper's and Outside. He is the author of novels Moonlight Hotel and Triage and of non-fiction books The Man Who Tried to Save the World and The 4 O'Clock Murders, and co-author of War Zones and Inside The League with his brother Jon Lee Anderson.  

Please check here for more information about Anderson's book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.