Review: A Peace to End All Peace

A Peace to End All Peace
A Peace to End All Peace
David Fromkin
New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1989

Review Copyright © 2002 Garret Wilson — 8 August 2002 8:43am

Most contemporary discussions on the Middle East ignore how the current system of states there were formed. Modern debates often assume that the particular borders we see now—Iraq, Syria, Jordan, etc.—always existed in the arrangement we see now, with similar political structures. As David Fromkin points out in A Peace to End All Peace, such an assumption is displaced from reality. The system of states as we know it in the Middle East (a term only invented in 1902) (224), was crafted by Europeans around 1922 as a way to grab new expansions to their empire, to carve up the fallen Ottoman Empire and establish influence as they had done with other countries after previous wars.

The process of Middle Eastern statehood is a story involving Britain, France, Russia, Greece, and on the fringes, America. The road is littered with misinformation on all sides; disasterous assumptions and unwarrented mistakes; egos; and blatant grabs for power. The story goes something like this, as I remember it from the book.

The Turks had been trying to find a powerful to ally with them for some time, but had been rebuffed by one after another. After was was started with Germany, the British thought the Germans, who finally accepted Ottoman requests for an alliance, were the ones who initiated the relationship. Russia, an ally at the time, at one point was having problems on a front and asked Britain to attack Turkey. Russia later realized it wasn't having problems anymore, but Britain went ahead and attacked.

After Britain got into the Ottoman empire, it made a series of mistakes that meant instead of finishing the invasion quickly, as was possible then, they instead were defeated in various battles and wound up being entrenched in a drawn out war in the Middle East. Through a variety of political changes in Britain, such as Prime Minister Asquith being replaced by Lloyd George (and Winston Churchill being thrown out of relevant politics altogether), the new government decided it wanted carve up the Middle East as spoils of the war, once it was finished, in a similar manner to the aftermath of previous conflicts.

The British decided to set up Hussein as a sort of "Pope" for Islam, so that Britain could control Arabia through Hussein. Unfortunately for them, such a position for Hussein was not possible due to the political and social arrangements in the Middle East, so the British wound up stationing troops for years in an effort to control the territories over which they now wanted power. To make matters worse for Britain, Russia changed sides.

Adding to all this turmoil was the (incorrect) suspician by Britains and many other Europeans of some worldwide Jewish conspiracy that had the power to control events in several countries. Hoping to use this power to their advantage, Britain made overtures to Jewish Zionism by issuing the Balfour Declaration which advocated a Jewish national home in Palestine, which originally included Jordan. Implementing such a declaration wasn't easy, not only because some Arabs didn't like an influx of Jews but because even some local British governors and military promoted Arab uprisings. Although British promises to the Jews and to the Arabs were ambiguous as to boundaries and timetables, Britain never intended to satisfy the agreements in the first place.

By 1922, the year that everything in the Middle East seems to culminate, the USSR was formed; Britain tinkered with elections in the new state of Iraq to set up and control Feisal (Hussein's son) as ruler; Britain set up Abdullah (Hussein's other son) in Jordan; ibn Saud, who kept causing problems with Abdullah, was given Saudia Arabia; and Britain managed to mollify France by parceling out Syria and Lebanon.

Fromkin's main point is that by 1922, European powers had partitioned the former Ottoman Empire into states and setup puppet regimes, drawing boundaries and imposing rulers while ignoring the wishes of those who actually lived there. It would appear difficult to understand the present-day Middle East without an appreciation of its formation, which is explained in detail in the pages of A Peace to End All Peace. Points I found particularly interesting can be found below.