- - Monday, November 11, 2013

LAWRENCE IN ARABIA: WAR, DECEIT, IMPERIAL FOLLY AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST
By Scott Anderson
Doubleday, $28.95, 577 pages

For political scientists, and especially academics, intelligence is the dark angel of foreign affairs, eager to topple governments and betray other persons — including allies — through stealth and lies. Oh, perhaps. The chronicles of spookdom certainly brim with case histories of chicanery. But in terms of flagrant international treachery, few episodes in diplomatic history surpass the sordid record of the allied powers — including the United States — in their dealings with Middle East nations during World War I, 1914-1918.

Much of what the average reader knows about intrigue during the period revolves around the British anthropologist-turned-intelligence-operative T.E. Lawrence, a covert agent for the Crown who strove to inspire the so-called “Revolt in the Desert,” an attempt to stir an Arabic uprising against Germany. Lawrence’s image benefited from his own books and from an adoring “biography” by Lowell Thomas, the famed radio commentator.

But Lawrence was far from being the only intelligence agent in the game. The United States, Germany, France, even stateless Israelis trying to form their own nation, vied for influence among the disparate tribes that occupied Arabia. The goal was to wean away Turkish support for Germany during the first years of the war so as to protect Britain’s routes to India.

Scott Anderson relates the story with vivid writing supported by a staggering amount of research — one of the more fascinating reads I have encountered in years. His cast of characters alone satisfies one’s appetite for how espionage really works in the field.

Consider the United States. A latecomer to international intelligence, Washington, had no operatives in the area, so it sought the help of Standard Oil Co. of New York (Socony), one of 34 units into which the Rockefeller Standard Oil monopoly had been splintered in a 1911 antitrust action. Standard continued to harbor international ambitions, running a “foreign-service school” for men it dispatched abroad to monitor its interests.

Its recrui for the Middle East was a 20-ish chap named William Yale, scion of a prominent family that had fallen onto hard times. An Ivy League graduate, he joined Standard as an oil-field worker in Oklahoma. But his pedigree qualified him for grander things. Soon he was in Arabia, under cover with a group of wealthy “swells” making a grand tour.

Then he got down to business, buying oil rights for broad swaths of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. As the only major oil company still active in the area, Socony acquired rights for 500,000 acres at knock-off prices. Turkey desperately needed oil for its war effort. Tough: Standard furnished not a drop for the duration; its eyes focused on future riches. Socony sold to belligerents on both sides, reflagging tankers in neutral countries, the man responsible explaining to Yale that “business was business, and that if he didn’t ‘sell to the enemy, his competitors surely would.’” (Yale eventually went on the U.S. payroll, but continued under Socony cover.)

Mr. Anderson covers a wide range of spy tradecraft. An Israeli agent, an agronomist named Aaron Aaronstein, used his supposed field work in tracing locust infestation to establish an extensive network of prospective Jewish spies across Palestine.

The Germany spy, Curt Prufer, held a shadowy post in his embassy known as the “dragoman,” a flunky in the gray area between diplomatic and consular duties, giving him considerable operation freedom.

The hypersexual Prufer relied heavily on females. “They will try to get friendly with people who might be able to supply information.” He left no doubt what he meant by “friendly,” proclaiming, “Above all, the women agents — who must be young and not without charms — should try to get into relationships with influential people who may, in a moment of weakness born of intimacy, let escape information that could be useful to us.”

The main chicanery, however, came from the Brits, in an episode that tells why it was known as “perfidious Albion” for decades. The Arabs wanted recognition of an independent nation encompassing virtually their entire world, from Iraq in the east to Syria in the west and extending to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Details would come later, but an “absolute precondition was that the French were not to have a controlling presence anywhere.” If that was agreeable, the British “could have their revolution in the heart of the Ottoman world.” The Brits signed onto the deal.

Need it be said that Whitehall lied? A secret covenant assured France a continued role in Syria, a presence it maintained for decades. Apologists for years dismissed the episode as a “misunderstanding” in the government. Mr. Anderson rightly snorts that such an excuse is “squalid, akin to arguing that a promise isn’t a promise because one’s fingers were crossed. To the degree that the British right hand did not know what the left was doing, it was because a select group of men at the highest reaches of government went to great lengths to endure it.” He speaks of “a labyrinth of information firewalls — deceptions, in a less charitable assessment.”

I generally consider it a waste of time to address “what if?” scenarios, because history tends to veer in nonlineal directions. But in this instance, I cannot resist wondering “what if” the great powers had played it straight in a time of crisis in the Middle East? We shall never know.

Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.