Saturday, July 21, 2007

Iraq and the Other George

If you only read one book about the Middle East, it should be A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. The public conversation about the Iraq war, and the problems of the wider region, seldom covers anything that happened before Sept. 11, 2001 (or, at a stretch, the First Gulf War.) But in fact, today's troubles have their roots in the First World War and the peace imposed by the European powers at its end. Fromkin traces the lineage of the conflicts with great clarity and surprising verve.

It's a complex narrative, full of epic characters (Lawrence of Arabia; Winston Churchill; Feisal and Ibn Saud, the rivals for the throne of Arabia; David Lloyd George, the ruthlessly imperialistic British prime minister; Woodrow Wilson; Chaim Weizmann and the other founders of the state of Israel; the French prime minister Clemenceau; Gertrude Bell, the godmother of Iraq) and cataclysmic themes (the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rising conflict between Arabs and Jews, the betrayal of Arab nationalism by the European powers). But suffice it to say that in redrawing the map of the Middle East to suit their own purposes, with little understanding of or regard for the desires of its inhabitants, the British and French lit long-burning fuses throughout the area. Fromkin is calm and deft in pointing out the results of their hubris, and it's a lesson that could have been useful; this is the book George W. Bush should have read before he invaded Iraq.


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