Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fromkin's Middle East

David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace presents one of the most detailed and thorough portraits of the creation of the Modern Middle east out of the dissolution of the Ottoman empire.  It also presents a harrowing picture of modern diplomacy that, as the recent wikileaks communications show, is still prevalent.  Both aspects are relevant today as the tug-of-war of politics is played out.

Fromkin studies the Middle East during a specific period of time.  Despite a short preamble where he discusses the "great game", the various means that the pre-WWII powers manipulated parts of the Middle East as a buffer zone for their respective countries, the bulk of his work is honed in on the period between 1914 and 1922.  The central focus of the study is on Britain and this hub is the base he uses to discuss the movements and decisions of the other countries involved.  These are primarily France and Russia on the one side and what becomes modern Turkey on the other, with a smattering of Germany.  My lone criticism comes from this approach in that the inner working of the Russians and French are rarely addressed unless seen through the prism of Britain so the methods by which they came to their decisions remain vague.  More is seen of people like the Turkish Enver Pasha, providing a glimpse into the opposing force.  While this is a legitimate criticism I have a reservation in overemphasizing it as the book is already over 550 pages long and the additional details would have led to additional bulk.

The Middle East, much like Eastern Europe, is seen as the intersecting point between East and West.  It is no coincidence that both regions have a long history of conflict.  For example, the British initially desired key positions in the Middle East to act as a secure route through Europe to India.  France wanted to protect and expand her colonies, while the British desired France to have a position in the Middle East that would place them between Russian and British controlled zones to act as a buffer.  Add in Russian claims as well as the wishes of the various groups who considered this region native soil and what emerges is a chaos of competing beliefs and desires that were also dynamic as new individuals gained influence in their respective home governments.  Fromkin does an excellent job at clarifying these shifts.

Several individual players in this game are given a demythologizing treatment.  Churchill, though somewhat redeemed in the latter portion of the book, is portrayed as brash and ambitious to a fault.  Lawrence is treated as a footnote to the Middle eastern saga, not as the primary player that The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the David Lean film, and most of his countless biographers would have us believe.  The military hero Lord Kitchener almost comes across as a buffoon as his star falls.

The overall diplomatic workings are incredibly interesting.  What comes across clearly is what I can only describe as a "fog of diplomacy" to alter the phrase the fog of war.  The maneuvering of each country according to their own self-interest and the positioning they wished for themselves at the end of the conflict is incredible.  What makes this even more striking is the description of how these world altering decisions were reached according to false evidence or long-held bias rather than hard facts.  For example, the contention of several British decision-makers that Islam was a unified religion that could be wielded by the British as a tool led them into false associations of influence, where they believed that by controlling one person they could control the entire population.  Descriptions of mis-steps due to faulty information or beliefs abound throughout the work.

While the story of the Middle East is far from over, and Fromkin's final chapter suggests aspects of study that would take volumes to explore, he has written a brilliant work that provides insight to a critically transformational period in this regions history.

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