David Lee McMullen is a member of the history faculty at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, where he teaches British and American History. He is the author of Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson.
Looking at the recent three-nation attack on Syria’s chemical weapons, it is easy to remember that a hundred years ago the same three nations were involved in altering the political forces within the region, two by aggressive action and one by lack of action.
It was the closing days of World War I. The Ottoman Empire, which had existed for more than six hundred years, was collapsing. Britain and France were preparing to take control of the region for themselves. America would quickly retreat from the world stage, entering a period of isolationism that helped popularize the slogan “America First,” allowing the British and French to pick the bones of the old empire.
During the First World War, Britain sent troops to what is modern Iraq and used agents such as T.E. Lawrence, the man who would become famous as Lawrence of Arabia, to work with Arab tribes to mount a guerrilla war against Turkish forces.
In 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, England’s first Jewish Member of Parliament and a prominent member of the nation’s Jewish community, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, a document that led to the creation of modern Israel.
With its entry into the Great War, as it was called back then, the United States, stepped on to the world stage as a global leader. American money had kept the Allied war machine running from the earliest days of the war, and in the final months of the war American troops would help to put the final nail in the Kaiser’s coffin.
President Woodrow Wilson led the American delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, taking with him his famous Fourteen Points for achieving the goal of the day – to make that war the war that ended all wars.
Perhaps the two most important of the Fourteen Points were (1) the creation of an international body where problems between nations could be resolved peacefully and (2) allowing the people of the newly freed regions to determine their own government. Self-determination was the very principle upon which the United States was founded.
As a result of the conference, the League of Nations was formed. Unfortunately the Republican controlled Senate, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, refused to ratify the treaty Wilson had signed and thus the U.S. never joined the League.
As for the principle of self-determination, that was something for Europeans, not for the colonial world. Colonies, after all, were essential for maintaining Europe’s global economic hegemony. With the Americans retreating into isolation, Britain and France used the authority of the new League of Nations to divide up a large chuck of the Middle East to serve their own special interests. Britain got what is today modern Iraq, Israel and Jordan. France got Lebanon and Syria.
Borders were drawn by the Europeans to benefit their own special interests, without regard to the needs of the people living there. Governments controlled by the Europeans were established, despite individuals familiar with the Middle East, such as T.E. Lawrence, who pushed for the right of self-determination among the Arab communities.
Interestingly, a significant geopolitical motivation for British involvement in the region was blocking Russian access to the area, which would have helped to guarantee Russian access to a warm water port open to the world.
From a modern perspective, the contradiction is clear. Western nations such as the United States, Britain and France contributed significantly to the chaos of the Middle East. Now they offer missiles as a solution.
In the United States, there is an administration that on one day proclaims America First and on the next resumes the role of global cop, making it all too obvious that the nation does not have a long-term strategy for Syria or the Middle East. In Britain, the anti-immigrant bias that motivated Brexit offers a similar lack of consistent leadership. As for France, they too are dealing with growing nationalism.
Today, Syria is simply the hottest spot in a region that has been ready to explode for decades. America, Britain and France were instrumental in creating this powder keg, and they have a moral responsibility to help defuse it.
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