For most of World War I, the American intelligence presence in the Middle East consisted of a 29-year-old man named William Yale, an employee of an oil company who had approached the State Department to see if he could avoid the draft by parlaying his experience in the region into an overseas posting. He'd observed the positions of Turkish military bases while traveling in the Ottoman Empire before America joined the war, but he was largely innocent of deeper knowledge of the region.
As he later wrote, “I lacked a historical knowledge of the background of the problems I was studying. I had … very little understanding of the fundamental nature and function of the [regional] economic and social system.” Undeterred by his lack of expertise, the State Department arranged for Yale to return to the Middle East as a special agent.
Yale is one of a quartet of scheming characters in Scott Anderson’s new book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which seeks to remedy some of the American ignorance of Middle Eastern history that Yale represents.
Shortly after arriving in Cairo to begin his new posting, Yale managed to get access to a weekly British report called the "Arab Bulletin" that summarized sensitive intelligence gathered from around the Middle East. Yale, who was still receiving half of his former salary from the Standard Oil Company of New York, scanned the report for any references to oil.
He also broke his word to the British by communicating its contents to the US State Department. He justified his behavior by invoking the corrupting influence of living and working among “European and Oriental officials."
Despite a penchant for deception and bigotry, Yale isn’t necessarily the most repugnant character in Anderson’s book. Another strong contender is Aaron Aaronsohn, a botanist, anti-Ottoman spy, and ardent Zionist. These diverse roles were often complementary. He helped design and run a British-supervised spy ring in Palestine in part because the British were receptive to his dreams of a Jewish state in Palestine after the war.
His interest in agriculture was also political: to build a Jewish state in the desert would require an intimate knowledge of the soil conditions and crop varieties that could sustain a large population. Some Jews in the early 20th century saw Zionism as an anti-Semitic ruse, an attempt to suggest that Jews of various nationalities lacked loyalty to their homelands. Others envisioned Zionism as a peaceful mingling of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Aaronsohn, however, wanted to expel the “squalid, superstitious, ignorant” Palestinian serfs known as fellaheen to create a Jewish state. To promote this end, he and his British handlers launched a propaganda campaign. After both Jewish and non-Jewish residents of the town of Jaffa were evacuated by the Ottomans prior to an attack, Aaronsohn and the British disseminated alarmist accounts hinting darkly that Jews were the targets of atrocities. The attempt to rouse international panic and bolster the Zionist movement worked, though it also deflected attention from the hundreds of thousands of Armenians facing a Turkish genocide.
A third schemer of the period was the German spy Curt Prüfer, who engineered elaborate plots to spark anti-British revolts in the Arab world. The idea of inflaming Arab tribes also appealed to the French and British. Suffering enormous losses on the Western front, they saw in the Middle Eastern theater the chance to win a desperately needed victory against the Ottoman Empire by inciting an Arab revolt.
But the agendas of two of Europe’s most rapacious colonial powers aligned only imperfectly with the interests of Arab tribesmen. British officials actually referred to the Ottoman Empire as “the Great Loot,” and well before the war had ended, France and Britain had already carved up the Middle East for themselves in the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement. But in the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, Britain had promised some of the same lands to Emir Hussein, the leader of the Bedouin tribes in the Hejaz region of western Arabia.
One of the few members of the British military elite who considered this duplicity a problem was a young colonel named Thomas Edward Lawrence. Unlike Peter O’Toole, who played Lawrence in David Lean’s 1962 epic film "Lawrence of Arabia," the actual Lawrence was 5 feet 3 inches tall and had an uncannily youthful appearance: Those meeting him for the first time often thought he was a teenager.
Even before World War I, Lawrence lacked the colonial hauteur typical of his generation. After living and working in Carchemish as an archaeologist, he complained of the arrogance of Europeans in the Middle East. “The foreigners come out here always to teach, whereas they had much better learn.”
Once the war began, Lawrence left a desk job in Cairo to undertake a variety of missions throughout the Middle East. His views of colonial ambition were only solidified by the experience of war. Reflecting on the heavy casualties he witnessed in Iraq in 1916, Lawrence later wrote: “All our subject provinces to me were not worth one dead Englishman.”
To British military commanders, however, even the semblance of victory was worth a great many dead Englishmen. At the Battle of Passchendaele, for instance, the 70,000 British casualties represented one dead man for every two inches of ground wrested from the Germans.
Lawrence fought a style of war very different from the entrenched exchanges that caused such carnage on the Western Front. Leading small, mobile units of camel-mounted tribesmen, he sabotaged Turkish garrisons and supply lines throughout the Middle East. Anderson suggests that one reason Lawrence quickly became a legend was the shattered British public’s desperate need to find some trace of grandeur and romance amid the desolate slaughter of the war.
He also emphasizes Lawrence’s courage in defying the colonial policies of his superiors. Lawrence had a convenient way of “not receiving” cables with orders contrary to his own plans, and when he learned that the British promises to Emir Hussein of an independent Arab nation were outright lies, he took the arguably treasonous step of revealing the contents of Sykes-Picot to Hussein’s son Faisal.
Anderson interweaves the stories of Lawrence, Prüfer, Aaronsohn, and Yale to create a rich and detailed account of European machinations in the Middle East during a critical and turbulent period. The subtitle of Lawrence’s sprawling autobiography "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is "A Triumph," but it’s hard not to feel that his story is closer to a tragedy. After the war ended, Lawrence was sidelined at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference as Britain and France lived out their fantasies of a “Great Loot,” dividing up the Middle East and ignoring their own promises as well as innumerable religious and political subtleties in the region.
Anderson’s narrative clarifies the origins of some of the seemingly intractable struggles that still beset the Middle East. It might seem surprising that contemporary American military leaders would appreciate Lawrence’s insights, but in 2006, General David Petraeus ordered his senior staff to read Lawrence’s "Twenty-Seven Articles," a short treatise offering advice on working with the Bedouin.
What Petraeus missed, apparently, was Lawrence’s reminder that his advice applied only to the Bedouin, and the non-Bedouins, who represent nearly 98% of the Iraqi population, would require “totally different treatment.” William Yale would have been proud.
Nick Romeo is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.