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Roots of Mideast's political chaos?

The subtitle of a book can never tell the entire story, but this one comes pretty close. T.E. Lawrence described the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I as "a sideshow of a sideshow." Accurate enough, perhaps, and the sideshow had more than its share of clowns.

"Lawrence in Arabia," by Scott Anderson.
"Lawrence in Arabia," by Scott Anderson.Read moreFrom the book jacket

War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East

By Scott Anderson

Doubleday. 592 pp. $28.95

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Reviewed by Paul Jablow

The subtitle of a book can never tell the entire story, but this one comes pretty close.

T.E. Lawrence described the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I as "a sideshow of a sideshow." Accurate enough, perhaps, and the sideshow had more than its share of clowns.

"The Great War" is perhaps most remembered more than a century later for its mindless carnage in Europe, thousands of men charging out of 19th-century trenches to be moved down by 20th-century weaponry.

The Mideast battles pitting Britain and its Arab allies against Ottoman Turkey, which was aligned with Germany, were hardly as cataclysmic - camels played almost as large a role as artillery. But folly was no less plentiful, mainly in attempts by Britain and France to manipulate the various Arab factions and the Zionists in Palestine as if they were playing chess in boxing gloves.

"How," journalist and novelist Scott Anderson asks of T.E. Lawrence, "did a painfully shy Oxford archaeologist without a single day of military training become the battlefield commander of a foreign revolutionary army, the political master strategist who foretold so many of the Middle Eastern calamities to come?"

The answer might well be lack of competition. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. The miscalculations by the British and French military and political leadership - and by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in the war's latter stages - are too numerous to mention here.

Lawrence, who rose from lieutenant to colonel by the war's end, was perhaps the one man who was able to read the Arabs correctly. Unfortunately for his mental health, he also read the British and French correctly most of the time, thus knowing that the Arab armies he was leading were fighting for something destined to be taken away from them once the fighting was over.

When the war ended, he turned down a knighthood and was said to have taken his Croix de Guerre medal and placed it around the neck of a friend's dog he walked.

As the war progressed, Anderson writes, "Lawrence no longer regarded himself as fighting for Great Britain, but for Arab independence."

Anderson tells the story through interwoven chapters on Lawrence and three other men: A Romanian-born agronomist, Zionist activist, and spy named Aaron Aaronsohn; a low-level Standard Oil Co. employee turned bungling intelligence officer named William Yale; and German spymaster Curt Prufer.

The device does help move the narrative along, but it has a painfully obvious illogicality: None of the other three had anything like the importance of Lawrence in the war's Mideast theater.

Anderson's research seems to have been painstaking, making this a fine companion volume to Lawrence's own Seven Pillars of Wisdom and director David Lean's spellbinding but overblown 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

As illusion-free as he seemed in assessing political battlefield situations - and the strengths and weaknesses of the Arab forces - the enigmatic Lawrence was given to rewriting his own history. One wonders why Anderson doesn't mention his assistance to journalist Lowell Thomas, whose lectures on Lawrence turned him into a household name.

According to Joel Hodson, an earlier biographer of Lawrence, Thomas once asked Lawrence to verify an anecdote he'd heard from someone who had known him in Cairo: "He laughed and said, 'Use it if it suits your needs. What difference does it make if it's true? History is seldom true.' "

"Earlier than most," Anderson writes, "Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe."

But there was little arguing over his almost magical ability to blend into and assess the Arab civilizations he had first learned of as a young archaeologist. In 2006, Anderson points out, the U.S. commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, ordered his officers to read Lawrence's "Twenty-Seven Articles" as a guide to winning the hearts and minds of the people.

"Presumably skipped over," Anderson writes, "was Lawrence's opening admonition that his advice applied strictly to Bedouin, about 2 percent of the Iraqi people," and that interacting with others required "totally different treatment."

And Lawrence was always skeptical of Britain's assumption that Jew and Arab could peacefully coexist in Palestine.

Was the carving up of the Mideast after the war, which so disgusted Lawrence, responsible for the political chaos in the region today? Anderson seems to think so.

"It was then that the toxic seed was planted," he writes. "Ever since, Arab society has tended to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms.

"This culture of opposition has been manipulated - indeed, feverishly nurtured - by generations of Arab dictators intent on channeling their people's anger away from their own misrule in favor of the external threat, whether it is 'the great Satan' or the 'illegitimate Zionist entity' or Western music playing on the streets of Cairo."

One wonders, at least, what T.E. Lawrence would have thought.