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on 8 February 2006
Who will become the Edward Gibbon of the British Empire? How many volumes will be required to chronicle the expansion and decline of the Anglo-Norman people in their globe-girdling endeavour? How many different nations and cultures came under their domination or control? Will that historian see the first signs of the Empire's decline in its dismemberment of a rival empire - the Ottoman? Britain's last imperial thrusts occurred while it was embroiled in a global war - the "war to end all war". The irony of this title lies in that Britain's expansion into the Middle East resulted in turning an icon of stability into today's cockpit of conflicting interests.
Fromkin, while not the BE's "Gibbon", exquisitely details the last expansionary gasp of Britain's global realm. Opening with the early years of the Twentieth Century, he explains how the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered vast changes in the Middle East. The events on the "Western Front" fade almost into obscurity behind the intrigues to partition the Ottoman Empire. He carefully examines the international competition over what appeared to be useless desert. Nearly every European power sought control of the trade routes into the Far East. Russia, long in quest of the Dardanelles as a route to the Mediterranean and beyond, naturally clashed with the British Empire. France, although Britain's ally, remained a trade competitor.
Although the phrase "Balance of Power" was often used to typify the international situation prior to WWI, the reality was that Britain dominated the seas. Retaining that situation was fundamental to British policy-making. There had already been clashes in Afghanistan, gateway to India from the north. Russia as an ally in the European conflict was an uneasy liaison since her aim to control the Near East remained clear. In Fromkin's view, the clash between the British Empire and her challengers is "the Great Game". The "Great War" was little more than an incident by contrast. None of the Powers foresaw the immense bloodletting World War I would become, nor was the overthrow of the Czarist government by the Bolsheviks a factor in imperial planning.
The Ottoman Empire, weakened by internal dissent and breakaway "provinces" like Greece and Bulgaria, sought protective alliances. Given the enormity of the task and the reshuffling of power such an enterprise entailed, no European nation sought the responsibility. Yet, the breakup of the Ottaman structure remained an undercurrent in many foreign policies. Only Germany, seeking a fresh route to intrude on British global hegemony, found the prospect useful. Bogged down on the Western Front, the use of Turkish troops to embroil the British in another region had strong appeal. Fromkin traces the tangled diplomacy and military adventures resulting from the new alignments. The parade of personalities, their histories and outlooks, is almost staggering in its completeness and complexities. Among the British figures of major importance, Fromkin depicts Sir Mark Sykes as one of the most influential. Sykes, well versed in affairs of the region, noted that there were "no Ottomans", nor an Ottoman nation providing a core for their "Empire". Fromkin refers to it as the "incoherent Empire" - a view Sykes continually kept before the Foreign Office mandarins.
When a Turkish faction, known as the Young Turks, formed the Committee of Union and Progress [C.U.P.], it was the herald of a possible new arrangement. Founded on the notion of Turkish nationalism, it struggled to produce a new nation, while dissolving the old Empire. Sykes, knowing that dissolution of the Ottoman Empire threatened the British one, maneuvered policy to strengthen British influence in the Near East. Although the present scramble of nations in the Middle East has many fathers, Sykes may be viewed as among the most influential. In the course of the war and later, he's to be in found such diverse places as St Petersburg and Cairo. He's involved in the formation of various Middle East nations that now command the headlines and news broadcasts. Although there were many compromises and adjustments, it was, according to Fromkin, Sykes' views that were finally implemented in the creation of Iraq, Iran, Syria and the other nations we're now familiar with. They are the offspring of two empires. It is Sykes who is credited with creating the term "Middle East" in reference to a segment of the British Empire. Yet, for all his influence and maneuvering, he was beset by strange prejudices - not least of which was the notion that the Ottoman government was dominated by Jews.
Fromkin's choice of subject is too complex and intense to allow a prose style that is anything more than straightforward and informative. Even so, the behaviour of his cast renders embellishment unnecessary. Each attempt by people such as Churchill, Balfour, Lloyd George, and the multitude of Turkish and Arab plotters, schemers and manipulators to guide events, seems to prove elusive. Fromkin follows their maneuverings and attempts to resolve differences with superiour skill. The book reads almost as a shining example of adventure or spy fiction. Nothing may be skipped, and he keeps the various threads of intrigue and manipulation under tight control. It takes a special talent to make an historical account a "page-turner", and Fromkin achieves that in this book with deceptive ease. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]