Book Review: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson
In 1999, I was enthralled by Liaquat Ahamed’s book the Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. Mr. Ahamed explores the role of the central bankers in the US, UK, France, and Germany in mismanaging monetary policy and credit from World War I through the Great Depression. The book makes an otherwise dry subject interesting and develops the key characters into three-dimensional human beings. The men responsible for overseeing the global financial system included: Montagu Norman of the Bank of England; Benjamin Strong, President of the New York Federal Reserve; Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank; and, Emil Moreau of the Banque de France. The book also features John Maynard Keynes, who was probably the most influential economist of the 20th Century. For his efforts, Mr. Ahamed won the Pulitzer Prize.
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Scott Anderson has come along with another important book that lays out the misguided and disingenuous policies of the European powers in the Middle East during World War I as well as America’s peripheral role in that era. Like Mr. Ahamed, Mr. Anderson creates three-dimensional characters whether he’s describing politicians, generals, or spies, or whether he’s telling about the Turks, Arabs, Zionists, or the British. Much like Keynes in Lords of Finance, T.E. Lawrence comes to life in Mr. Anderson’s book. Those expecting Peter O’Toole from the movie Lawrence of Arabia may be disappointed, because the T.E. Lawrence in Mr. Anderson’s telling is far more complex and nuanced. Although he was a great tactician, and at times, a brutal warrior, he came to regret and was deeply troubled by his war experiences.
If you have an interest in understanding the current state of the Middle East, you should read Lawrence in Arabia. American policymakers would be well served by spending time with Mr. Anderson’s book. General Sisi’s coup in Egypt, the policies of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, and the civil was in Syria all have their roots in the actions of the European powers during World War I. We are living with the consequences of the conflicting promises of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (British-French understanding to divide the Middle East) in 1916, the Balfour Declaration (British policy promoting Zionist aspirations) in 1917, and the McMahon-Hussein letters (British promises to the Hashemites) in 1917. We are also dealing with the arbitrary borders drawn at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919. Mr. Anderson explains how these conflicting promises and maps came into being.
T.E. Lawrence was one of the few westerners who understood and embraced the Arabs. He also recognized at the end of World War I that he and his government had betrayed the Arab tribes and clans that fought along side the Western powers in ousting the Turks from the Middle East. While the British considered Lawrence a military hero, they ignored his insights into the cultural and social makeup of the Arabian Peninsula. Sadly, the West has learned little in nearly one hundred years and has managed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Mr. Anderson’s book is available for those who want to learn.