Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East by Karl E. Meyer & Shareen Blair Brysac (Norton: 2008) Reviewer, Rex Wingerter

Written by admin on August 4th, 2009

Before the public’s expectations of the Obama administration and his claim to start a “new beginning with the Muslim world” balloon too large, the promises George W. Bush initially made to the nation ought to be recalled.  He pledged that America under his leadership would wield a “humble but strong” foreign policy and the U.S. would be “judicious” in flexing its military power. Twelve months later, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq turned those words on their heads.

But the ouster of Bush, Chaney, Rice and Rumsfeld may change only the face but not the cause of America’s blundering in the Middle East.  As Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East makes clear, they are only the most recent of a long cast of characters to march onto the Middle East with the intention of making it a better place for all. From the end of the 19th century, a slew of British diplomats, soldiers and spies helped to create the mosaic of nations now labeled as the Middle East.  They were slowly supplemented and finally replace in the mid-20th century by their American counter-parts, who quickly applied their handiwork to the region.

Kingmakers make an often complicated history accessible to the general reader.  The heavy academic credentials of this husband and wife team thankfully are balanced by their TV and journalism experience. Halfway through the book, the reader readily understands why the “Arab street” often boils over in resentment and violence at meddling foreign interlopers. That the very term the “Middle East” is an Anglo-American invention, fashioned by U.S. naval strategist Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer in a 1902, is our first hint of how the region has been contoured with Western interests in mind.

Meyer and Brysac rely on more than a dozen personalities to thread their way through 100 years of Western intrusions in the Arab world. They begin with Lord Cromer, the British consul-general of Egypt in the 1880s and end with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the primary architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In between we are introduced to colorful and driven characters who were “building nations, defining borders, and selecting or helping to select local rulers.” Most were larger than life.

Mark Sykes co-authored a World War I agreement that secretly divided the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence; he was also instrumental in convincing England to sanction the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. The indomitable Gertrude Bell’s expertise on local conditions in Mesopotamia allowed her to help Britain draw the modern maps of Iraq, Jordan and Syria. She rivaled the swashbuckling and legendary T.E. Lawrence as they traveled though out the region, instigating Arab revolts during World War I against pro-German Ottoman rule or building alliances with local Arab tribes, all in the service of the British Crown.

Kingmakers illustrates that these actors all shared the hardnosed conviction that they were helping their country as well as the local inhabitants, even if harsh punishment often was required.  Winston Churchill advocated the use of mustard gas against “recalcitrant natives.”  A Royal Air Force officer advised “relentless and unremitting” bombing and machine gunning of villages as a means of teaching unruly locals a lesson. Such tactics, the authors’ observe, were “an early template for the Pentagon’s twenty-first century’s ‘shock and awe’” campaign in Iraq.

Creating countries and appointing leadership was how Britain exerted indirect rule over an area of increasing strategic and economic importance. But London never fooled itself into believing that its Arab surrogates had popular support; referring to King Faisal’s rule in Iraq, the Secretary of State for the Colonies admitted there was “no doubt” that if the Royal Air Force was removed, “the whole structure would inevitably fall to pieces.  Any locally raised forces without assistance from the air could not maintain internal order nor resist external aggression.” It’s an observation that may well apply to today’s Iraq under Nouri al-Maliki.

Similar strategic imperatives underlay American efforts in the Middle East. When Washington secured access to oil first in Saudi Arabia and then Iran, assuring oil’s unimpeded flow to Western markets became a top priority. But with the boundaries of the Middle East largely settled (except for Israel/Palestine), concern in Washington focused on what Meyer and Brysac called promoting “sensible government.” So, when it looked as if Iranian nationalism was endangering Persian petroleum, Kermit Roosevelt, the masterminded of the 1953 CIA coup in Iran, joined the list of kingmakers. But it was in Syria in 1949 where the CIA under Miles Copeland engineered its first Middle East coup. That Washington’s man, Colonel Hosni Za’im, was overthrown five months later didn’t prevent Copeland and his associates’ from further chicanery over the next 25 years in Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Meyer and Brysac describe the cold war years as an “era when U.S. covert intervention was perceived as the norm.” But unlike the Victorian or inter-war years where grandiose characters could create countries and demarcate borders in an afternoon, post-war intrigue was frustratingly abstruse. The authors’ annoyance is almost audible when they decry the subterfuge of modern cloak-and-dagger adventures which obscures fact from fiction and confuses reality with exaggeration. They provide a short but solid review of Middle East turmoil in the decades after World War II.  But it’s clear that the real kingmakers were a thing of the past.

Bush, Cheney & Co.’s invasion of Iraq gave the idea of kingmakers a new lease on life. The authors’ correctly focus on Wolfowitz as a new kingmaker.  But rather than analyze him within the context of being a modern-day Colonial Secretary, they offer a personal, social-intellectual narrative on how such a smart  and seemingly decent man could launch such a ruinous policy.  Such speculation has been offered elsewhere and little new is added. But that’s a small fault in an otherwise insightful book on the continuity of imperial adventures in the Middle East.

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