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Lessons unlearned in the Middle East

Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East; John Keay; W.W. Norton: 506 pp., $28.95 The Fate of Zionism: A Secular Future for Israel and Palestine; Arthur Hertzberg; Harper San Francisco: 194 pp., $19.95 The Case for Israel; Alan Dershowitz; Wiley: 264 pp., $19.95 Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars; Yaacov Lozowick; Doubleday: 326 pp., $26 The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land; Donna Rosenthal; The Free Press: 468 pp., $28

October 05, 2003|Milton Viorst | Milton Viorst is the author of "What Shall I Do With This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism" and has been reporting on the Middle East for three decades.

Nationalism, the vehicle on which Europe's history rode during the 19th century, spread to the Middle East in the 20th, becoming the region's driving force. The Arab world, which had submitted meekly to centuries of Ottoman oppression, was suddenly transformed when Western armies arrived to feast on the dying empire's remains. The Arabs distinguished the tyranny imposed by the Ottoman Muslims from domination by the Christian West, a distinction that made East-West conflict inevitable. Though the military odds heavily favored the West, the Arabs fought back on their own terms. Unfortunately, the promoters of the present war in Iraq appear never to have read the history books. The violence in Baghdad today confirms that Arab nationalism came into the 21st century as fierce as ever, with the Arabs ready to shed both their own blood and ours.

Books dealing with nationalist confrontation in the Middle East have not been in short supply. A few are grand in scope and notable in achievement, like British historian John Keay's "Sowing the Wind." Fascinated by the presumptuousness of their imperial past, the British are given to writing monumental works not so much extolling their triumphs as ruing their folly. With erudition and wit, Keay examines the British presence in the region from the end of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, reminding us of how even experienced imperialists blundered badly. His work stands in contrast to the abundance of Middle East books that focus more narrowly, most often on the Israeli-Arab conflict. These works characteristically brim with polemical ardor and old arguments, casting little light.

Large in ambition, Keay's book provides us as impartial an introduction to the complex Arab-Israeli relationship as possible, but it also fills us in on the effects on the region of the British-French rivalry, the Cold War, the contest over the Suez Canal, the implacable centrality of oil and a variety of eccentric personalities, most of them British: T.E. Lawrence, Kim Philby, Gertrude Bell. But since good history is chiefly useful for the light it sheds on contemporary problems, Keay's finest service lies in his account of the four decades of struggle between the British and the Arabs over Iraq. It leaves the reader looking at the evening news with a sense of deja vu. Britain's failed effort to master Iraq contained a warning to American policymakers of what to expect in their invasion -- if only they had bothered to take note.

In 1915, the second year of World War I, British columns drove confidently into what was then Mesopotamia, a remote Ottoman province. Stopped short of Baghdad, they retreated down the Tigris to the well-protected town of Kut, where their troops, scandalously ill-clothed and ill-provisioned, dug in. Britain was astonished when more than 500 soldiers were killed in skirmishes and another 500 died of poorly treated wounds, while about 700 died of disease and malnutrition. No one had foreseen the necessity of providing a decent field hospital. Does the absence of preparation sound familiar? The Turks were the principal foe, but they were supported by Arab scavengers and scouts, who "hung about on the horizon, swooped on the wounded, picked off stragglers, and committed unspeakable atrocities." The Arabs, improvising against an enemy who was better trained and equipped, fought as what Keay calls "desert guerrillas." Today some would less generously call them terrorists.

After the war, the victorious British pasted together three incompatible Ottoman provinces -- Shiite, Sunni and Kurd -- into a new state, to which they imparted the ancient name of Iraq. But they had no idea how to govern it. Britain had earlier given the Arabs solemn pledges of independence, without mentioning that they intended to confine that independence within imperial limits. But as occupiers, few of the British saw reason for any independence at all. "The country was so obviously unready for self-government that no one on the spot could possibly have advocated anything ... but the substitution of British for Turkish control," wrote one high official from Baghdad, while another claimed condescendingly, "The stronger the hold we are able to keep here the better the inhabitants will be pleased." With London loath to spend much money on Iraq, those in command in Baghdad likened their work to King Canute's. Though a laudable effort was made at what would today be called nation building, Iraqis rode a wave of resistance to the European colonialism that was rising throughout the Arab world. By the summer of 1920, Iraq was in open revolt.

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