The First Middle East Peace Process
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The First Middle East Peace Process
THE FIRST MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS
MANY OF THE WARS AND REVOLUTIONS THAT HAVE CONVULSED the contemporary Middle East, as well as the dreams and disappointments of its inhabitants, can be traced to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and to its most inspired, and ultimately deluded, participant.
Woodrow Wilson came to Paris not only with his presidential brief but also with much personal, theological, and ideological baggage. He once reflected how “a boy never gets over his boyhood and never can change those subtle influences which have become a part of him.” Wilson’s early years were spent amid the ruins and deprivations of the post–Civil War South. The memory left him permanently hateful of war and its ravages and determined to preserve peace whenever possible. His father and his grandfather, meanwhile, both of them Presbyterian ministers, instilled in him a belief in the need for Christian fellowship between individuals as well as among nations and a sense of his own destiny to achieve it. Later in his youth, during his travels through Great Britain, Wilson became enamored of Anglo-Saxon civilization and its ability to “do the thinking of the world.” His confidence in the righteousness of the United States led him, as president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey, to advocate an activist foreign policy based on fundamental republican ideals. America’s mission, Wilson held, was to “go to the ends of the earth carrying conscience and the principles that make for good conduct,” to bring democracy and stability to the world. 1
These ideas impacted Wilson’s concept of the postwar order, especially as it applied to the Middle East. He sympathized with the peoples of the region who had suffered so poignantly during the fighting and he recognized their need for dignity and independence. To assist them in achieving those goals and to safeguard peace worldwide, Wilson envisaged the creation of a League of Nations, an international assemblage in which Anglo-Saxon values would predominate. Out of the ashes of famine and genocide, the Middle East would emerge as a constellation of free and westward-looking nations, modeled on the United States and championed by its twenty-eighth president.
But Wilson brought more than ideals to Paris; he also brought his prejudices. He despised all forms of European imperialism, Britain’s included, and displayed a particular distaste for the Turks. As early as 1889, he characterized the Ottoman Empire as “abnormal” and as “a belated example of those crude forms of politics which the rest of Europe has outgrown.” The Turks were a “docile people,” he thought, who ought to be “cleared out” of the Balkans and western Thrace. Wilson assured Colonel House in 1912 that, should the world go to war, “there ain’t going to be no Turkey.”
Guided by rarefied principles, repelled both by imperialism and by some of imperialism’s victims, Wilson came to Paris with a lofty but often muddled mind. On the one hand, he looked forward to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of independent states on its pieces. Point Twelve of his Fourteen Points plan, presented to Congress in January 1918, promised “an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development” to “nationalities which are now under Turkish rule.” Less than a year later, however, Wilson told the State Department that “America believes in helping the whole of the Turkish Empire to obtain good government and the advantages of modern civilization” and that “this is an unassailable position.” The president, moreover, never specified which of the multifarious peoples of the Middle East were deserving of self-determination and how that right would be realized. He knew little of the region’s geography, cultures, and traditions, beyond what he had read in the Bible.2
Wilson’s confusion regarding the future of the Middle East became apparent to Walter Lippmann, a former New Republic editor who was serving as the assistant secretary of war, six months before the Paris conference. In an internal memo of May 1918, Lippmann warned that America was liable “to win a war and lose the peace” unless it found the “sheer, startling genius” necessary to reconcile Wilson’s conflicting plans for the Middle East. Heeding his caveat, the government established a secret task force, headquartered in the New York Public Library and code-named The Inquiry. More than one hundred scholars were enlisted in the group, leaders in fields as diverse as engineering, Egyptology, and Native American cultures. None of them, however, were specialists on the Middle East. Rather, The Inquiry’s “experts” consulted encyclopedias, travel books, and missionary manuals—everything but Arabic and Turkish texts—in formulating their plans for the region. Others pursued personal agendas. The American Board secretary James Barton, for example, proposed that the entire Ottoman Empire be placed under America’s aegis, with spiritual and ethical guidance provided by missionary schools and colleges.
The Inquiry nevertheless devised many of the concepts that were later implemented in the Middle East. Most of these emanated from the project’s Western Asian Division, under the diligent leadership of William L. Westermann, a distinguished professor of ancient history at the University of Wisconsin. Westermann believed that Europe’s secret plans for the Middle East should “be thrown in the waste paper basket” and that the United States should take the lead in reorganizing the entire region. Thus, Turkish Anatolia would be maintained as an independent entity, with international administrations arranged for Istanbul, the Dardanelles Strait, and a newly created state of Armenia. Foreign tutelage would also be necessary to bind the tribal peoples of Syria and Mesopotamia into cohesive nations and to guarantee religious freedom. Palestine would be reserved for the Jews. “It was the cradle and home of their vital race, which has made large spiritual contributions to mankind, and is the only land in which they can hope to find a home of their own.” Recognizing, however, the need to ensure the rights of the area’s non-Jewish population, and the potential for “fanaticism and bitter religious differences,” The Inquiry proposed that Palestine too, be placed under Western supervision, preferably Britain’s.3
The Inquiry’s recommendations for the Middle East were assembled in a report, “Just and Practical Boundaries for the Turkish Empire,” in November 1918, the month the armistice was signed. Wilson, though, chose not to share them with his Allies. The result was to thicken the curtain of uncertainty surrounding the president’s policies. To Britain and France, these seemed concerned less with punishing Turkish aggression than with denying the victors their hard-earned spoils of war. Lansing, too, who had long ago fallen out with his president, and Colonel House, who would also grow estranged from him, had at best an indistinct comprehension of Wilson’s plan for applying the self-determination principle. “Will not the Mohammedans of Syria and Palestine and possibly of Morocco and Tripoli rely on it?” the secretary of state ruminated. “How can it be harmonized with Zionism, to which the President is practically committed.”
The peoples of the region, on the other hand—Arabs, Jews, Armenians, Kurds, and even the Turks—were ecstatic about the Fourteen Points and profoundly grateful to their author. “No people…has felt [more] strongly the joyous emotion of the birth of a new era which, thanks to your virile action, is soon…to spread everywhere the benefits of peace,” the Egyptian nationalist leader Said Zaghlul saluted Wilson.4 Regarded by large parts of the West as a potentially dangerous dreamer and by much of the Middle East as a savior, Wilson, looking neither dreamy nor messianic but ecclesiastical—tophatted, bespectacled, and stiff—set out for the peace talks in Paris.
The Great Loot of the War
He arrived on December 12, 1918, the first president to journey outside the Western Hemisphere during his term in office, to a lavish welcome. The throngs that greeted Wilson, though, merely camouflaged the multiple hazards awaiting him at the talks. Although France and Britain had publicly committed themselves to “the complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks,” and to the “establishment of national governments…deriving their authority from the…free choice of the indigenous populations,” the two powers still had secret, imperialist plans for the Middle East. Prime Minister Lloyd George of Britain was eager to extend his country’s empire from Egypt to the Persian Gulf and to use the United States as a bulwark against French and Russian encroachments. His French counterpart, the wily and vengeful Georges Clemenceau, was determined to keep Syria for France and to place Palestine under an international regime. Both leaders favored the partition of Anatolia, with sectors reserved for the Italians and Greeks, and no role whatsoever for the Turks. “Is it not better that the Allies should determine the fate of…the former Ottoman Empire without the encumbrance of negotiations with that Empire?” Jean Jusserand, a senior French diplomat, asked Lansing. The British also objected to any discussion on Persia, a country that the United States considered neutral but that Britain included in its exclusive sphere of interest, or on the British protectorate in Egypt. For most of the conference’s participants, the Middle East remained, in Professor Westermann’s words, “the great loot of the war.”
Wilson, though, came determined to oppose any mass purloining of the Middle East. “The United States intends to completely ignore these [European] agreements,” read one of his guidelines, “unless by chance, they happen to contain certain provisions which we consider to be just and proper.” The president was also determined to preserve America’s economic and cultural interests in the region, but without taking on additional political and military responsibilities.
His ability to achieve these goals seemed, at first glance, formidable. Wilson’s was the only country to emerge unexhausted from the war, with an intact million-man army. But that edge was blunted in the Middle East, which, apart from the few hundred volunteers in the Jewish Legion, was devoid of American troops. “Not having declared war upon Turkey,” Westermann recalled, “we were always…outsiders, impotent to affect the actual course of the negotiations or put our own stamp upon the decisions taken.” By contrast, some 200,000 British soldiers now occupied the strategic cities of the Middle East, from Baghdad to Damascus, and dominated western Anatolia. “The other governments had only put in a few nigger policemen to see that we did not steal the Holy Sepulcher!” boasted the impish-looking but unscrupulous Lloyd George. By joining the war, Wilson had hoped to gain admittance to the peace conference and not have to “call through a crack in the door,” but in the Middle East, where he chose to protect American missionaries rather than project American power, the door remained frustratingly closed.5
America revealed its relatively weak hand in Middle Eastern matters on January 30, 1919, when the conference finally took up the subject of the Ottoman Empire. The European Allies refused to apply Wilson’s understanding of self-determination to the area and to relinquish their claims to colossal swaths of territory. Wilson accused the powers of seeking to annex the Middle East and, by so doing, undermine his envisioned League of Nations. “In spite of…[the] propaganda in regard to the liberation of oppressed races,” carped William Yale, now serving as one of Wilson’s advisers, “the British and the French are…working only for their own interests in the Near East.” The former French colonial minister Gaston Domergue willingly confirmed this charge, exclaiming, “The obstacle is America!”
The logjam was opportunely broken when Jan Smuts, a lean and leathern South African statesman (and the inventor of the words “holistic” and “apartheid”) devised the concept of “mandates.” According to this, the League of Nations would bestow control over former enemy territories to various powers, which would prepare their populations for self-rule. The idea dovetailed closely with The Inquiry’s recommendations for the future of the Middle East and appealed to European officials eager to acquire colonies under an enlightened and internationally sanctioned guise.
A council of representatives from ten Allied nations consequently voted to create mandates for Armenia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Arabia. Little thought, however, was given to how these mandates would be apportioned and even less to whether the native populations wanted them. The British, still anxious to keep the French away from the Suez Canal and the new Soviet regime out of the Middle East entirely, wanted the United States to become the mandatory authority in Syria and Armenia. “We ought to play self-determination for all it is worth,” counseled Lord Curzon, Britain’s newly appointed foreign secretary, “knowing in the bottom of our hearts that we are more likely to benefit from it than is anybody else.” His cynicism was shared by General Tasker Bliss, the Army general, linguist, and accomplished diplomat who served as Wilson’s chief military adviser. “Wherever a mandate covered oil wells and gold mines Great Britain would get it,” he reckoned, “and the United States would be asked to take a mandate over all of the rock-piles and sand-heaps that might be left.”
For Wilson, though, the question of American mandates was moot. Though he personally warmed to the suggestion of administering Armenia, where Americans had considerable cultural investments, he doubted whether the majority of his countrymen agreed. “I can think of nothing the people of the United States would be less inclined to accept than military responsibility in Asia,” he explained. The decision whether or not to embark on such an immense undertaking could not be made by one man, not even the president, Wilson explained, but only by the Senate. The Allies nevertheless continued to press Wilson on the issue, if only to contrast America’s reluctance to accept mandatory burdens in the Middle East with Europe’s willingness to shoulder them.6
While grappling with the Allies’ demands, Wilson was subjected to intense lobbying efforts by religious and ethnic interest groups from the United States. The best organized of these were the Zionists, who kept up a robust flow of information in support of what they now called a “Jewish Commonwealth” in Palestine—still less than a state but more than a mere national home. Augmented by the influx of eighty thousand Jewish immigrants annually, this commonwealth, the Zionists reasoned, would soon represent the majority of Palestine’s inhabitants and thus fill the Wilsonian criteria for self-determination.
The argument persuaded many participants at the conference, including, however improbably, Feisal, the son of Sherif Husayn and commander of the Arab Revolt. Visiting the emir, or prince, at his villa outside of Paris, Felix Frankfurter assured Feisal that the Jews had no desire to deprive the Arabs of their national rights and that the two movements could coexist peacefully to their mutual advantage. “Here was little me meeting this Arab prince,” the diminutive Frankfurter recalled, noting how that same prince graciously served him coffee. Already delighted by this display of Arab hospitality, Frankfurter was further thrilled as Feisal praised the Jews as “cousins in race” and wished them “a hearty welcome home.” He expressed his “deepest sympathy” for Zionist aspirations, which he described as “moderate and proper” and “national and not imperialistic.” Syria was large enough to accommodate Zionism and Arab nationalism, the emir concluded. “Indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the other.”
Feisal later denied making these statements, but his contribution to the Zionist case was irrevocable. Yet that same Feisal, solemn-faced and regal in his traditional Arab robes, was also revered by American supporters of the Arab position at Paris. Listening to this “ancient seer and…Moslem paladin,” whose demeanor “suggested the calmness and peace of the desert,” the habitually tight-lipped Lansing swooned into a reverie long known to American travelers to the Middle East. “His voice seemed to breathe the perfume of frank-incense and to suggest the presence of richly colored divans, green turbans and the glitter of gold and jewels.” Feisal claimed that 100,000 Arabs had taken part in his revolt—Yale put the number closer to 2,000—and predicted that Arab villagers would one day erect statues in honor of the United States. Hyperbole, however, only fortified the charm that the Hashemite prince managed to exude toward Americans. Edith Wilson, the First Lady, remarked on the prince’s “startling resemblance to…pictures of the Christ,” and even William Westermann, The Inquiry’s Nordic and notoriously staid academic, was struck. “Great is Feisal,” the historian exclaimed. “I am a convert.”
Lansing and Westermann provided redoubtable counterweights to the Zionist influence at Paris, but their voices were hardly lone. The American delegation was deluged with letters decrying the creation of a Jewish commonwealth, and not only from American Arabs but also from American Jews, Orthodox and Reform alike. Henry Morgenthau submitted a petition signed by 299 “prominent American Jews” that denounced Zionism as an attempt to impugn their allegiance to the United States. The severest blow to the Zionist campaign, though, came from the segment of the American public formerly most enamored of the Jewish state idea. “The opposition of the Moslems and Christians to granting any exceptional privilege to the Jews in Palestine is real, intense and universal,” warned Otis Glazebrook, the Jerusalem reverend and consul who expressed empathy for Jews at the beginning of the war but whose words now evoked those of his anti-Zionist predecessor, Selah Merrill. Glazebrook predicted that Russian Jews would bring Bolshevism to Palestine and that Yiddish-speaking Jews were pro-German. “Jerusalem will be quickly inflamed—Nablous and Hebron are the danger points.”
Glazebrook belonged to the generations of missionaries, the followers of Henry Jessup and Daniel Bliss, who ventured to the Middle East in order to convert the Arabs, but were eventually converted to Arabism. As the goals of Arab nationalism became separate from, and antithetical to, those of Zionism, the final break between missionaries and Zionists grew inexorable. The most dramatic display of that schism occurred on February 13, as Howard Bliss appeared before the Council of Ten.
A monument of a man, tall, thin, and yoke-shouldered with a silver corona of hair, the sixty-nine-year-old Bliss entreated passionately for the Arabs. “They are intelligent, able, hospitable and lovable, but with the sure defects of a long oppressed race; timidity, love of flattery, indirectness,” Bliss asserted, but then assured his listeners that the Arab inhabitants of Syria would, with time and guidance, “grow into capacity for self-determination and independence.” He urged the delegates to ask the Arabs what they favored, foreign rule or self-government. Their preference, Bliss ventured, would be for a free Syria, including Palestine, safeguarded by the United States.7
Wilson did not have time to consider Bliss’s proposal, though. The next day, with a draft covenant for his League of Nations in hand, the would-be peacemaker departed for the United States. Awaiting him there was a powerful block of senators opposed to America’s membership in the League. Henry Cabot Lodge and many of the same senators who had once insisted that the United States intervene in the war against Turkey now wanted the United States to recoil from any involvement in that conflict’s resolution. The League, Lodge and his colleagues feared, would curtail American’s sovereignty and mortgage its security to blocs of small, nondemocratic principalities.
Opposition to Wilson was particularly keen on Middle Eastern issues. Years of press reports on the Armenian massacres and other atrocities had hardened the public’s traditional animosity toward Turkey and the Islamic religion. “So long as the Koran makes murder a part of the Mohammedan religion, the Moslem must not be permitted to rule over Christians or Jews,” raged Henry Morgenthau. The esteemed and aristocratic novelist Edith Wharton also visited the Middle East during the war and published scathing reports. “Nothing endures in Islam, except what human inertia has left standing,” she wrote, charging that the entire Middle East, “from Persia to Morocco,” was predicated on “slavery, polygamy and the segregation of women.” The air of enmity further dissuaded Congress from endorsing those parts of the postwar settlement dealing with the Middle East or from accepting any mandatory responsibilities there. “I cannot imagine how these gentlemen can live and not live in the atmosphere of the world,” Wilson protested. “America is the only nation…that can undertake that mandate and have the rest of the world believe that it is undertaken in good faith and that we do not mean to stay there.”
On March 20, 1919, the president returned to Paris and to yet another maelstrom. Backed by the British, Feisal was demanding independence for all of Arabia, with the exception of parts of Lebanon and Palestine, with a possible American mandate over Syria. France produced Syrian representatives of its own who testified in support of French control of their country—Lansing sketched caricatures as they spoke, and Wilson gazed disinterestedly out of a window. “The Turkish Empire at the present time was as much in solution as though it were made of quicksilver,” he recorded, ruing the fluidity of the Middle East. “Austria…had been broken into pieces…but the Turkish Empire was in complete solution.” In order to conquer Syria, Wilson said, the French would have to crush Fesial’s 100,000-man army and risk a clash with Britain as well. Colonel House warned of “widespread trouble of a religious and racial character” about to erupt in Syria and Palestine.8
To avoid this “scrap,” as he called it, Wilson took up Howard Bliss’s proposal for sending an international fact-finding mission to Syria to ascertain its inhabitants’ desires. France and Britain consented, though only on the condition that the investigators covered not only Syria but also all other territories slated for mandates. Wilson accepted this proviso, but then Clemenceau refused to participate in the project as long as British soldiers occupied Syria, and Lloyd George said that if France boycotted the commission, Britain would, too. Such were the machinations at Paris that what began as a multilateral effort was soon reduced to an exclusively American plan.
To implement it, Wilson appointed two individuals who, he claimed, “knew nothing about” the Middle East and therefore could render objective opinions. Such assurances were scarcely ingenuous. The first commissioner, Dr. Henry Churchill King, though currently the president of Oberlin College, was by training a Congregationalist minister and former YMCA official who had traveled extensively in the Holy Land. The second was the exponent of Arab nationalism and self-described anti-Semite Charles Crane, “a very experienced and cosmopolitan man,” according to Wilson. Attached to the delegation staff were William Yale, whose reservations about Zionism and European designs on the Middle East were well documented, and Albert Lybyer, a professor from Robert College.
The appointment of a commission so obviously predisposed against European and Zionist objectives in the Middle East was a curious move for Wilson, who, in spite of many misgivings, had formerly supported the mandate system and the Balfour Declaration. But the missionaries were now against Zionism and opposed to British imperialism, and their influence on Wilson once again proved paramount. “Our [Allied] governments…have undertaken a commitment toward the Jews to establish something which resembles an Israelite state in Palestine, to which the Arabs are very much opposed,” the president now admitted. The same faith-guided mindset that had prevented Wilson from making war on Turkey now led him to side with Bliss in seeking to create a unified Arab Syria, including Palestine, possibly under an American mandate.
The commission, accordingly, terrified the Zionists. “A crazy idea,” Frankfurter called it, and a plot “to cheat Jewry of Palestine.” The French, too, were furious, insisting that Americans “were too honest to deal with the Orientals.” Only Feisal was elated. Bliss, he said, was “the root of all good in the Near East” and America, with its twenty-eight states, would serve as the protector and model of the future Arab federation. “I am confident that when the Commission visits Syria, it will find a country united in its love and gratitude to America,” he guaranteed Wilson. Toasting to the commission’s imminent success, the Arab prince for the first time tasted champagne.9