Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East

Western meddling in foreign lands ... Moshe Behar wonders if it's worth a read by a certain Mr Obama

January 22, 2009

The day Americans elected their first African-American president is the day I finished reading Kingmakers. Since the book's (married) authors are themselves Americans surveying British/American involvement in the Arab and non-Arab Middle East, I found myself wondering whether it would be useful for the President-elect to invest the time needed to traverse the text's 500 pages to inform his formulation of a post-neoconservative Middle East policy. My half-hearted verdict is yes.

Retelling the story of Western meddling in domestic Middle Eastern affairs since 1882, Meyer and Brysac gear their text towards non-specialised readers. The attempt to lure this audience begins with a methodological choice not often used by contemporary historians and political scientists: the authors transmit the story of Anglo-American colonial politics by meticulously crafting biographical essays of nine Britons (seven men, two women) and three American men who - on behalf of the material interests of their invading homelands - were immersed up to their teeth in domestic Middle Eastern affairs. The book's advantage is that the essays are self-contained and can stand on their own.

Kingmakers begins with the ostensibly learned hubris of Lord Cromer (Sir Evelyn Baring), Britain's first Consul-General to Egypt (1883-1907), who stereotypically had no doubt that "the European is a natural logician (whilst) the mind of the Oriental is eminently wanting in symmetry". The book concludes 100 years later with the unlearned neo-hubris of Paul Wolfowitz, George Bush's Deputy Secretary of Defence from 2001 to 2005, and a chief mastermind in linking Iraq to the war on al-Qaeda. In between, British readers are likely to benefit most from the story of Kermit Roosevelt, a senior CIA figure who oversaw the 1953 overthrowing of Iran's constitutional government, as well as from the multi-state involvement during the 1950s of CIA operative Miles Copeland.

Meyer and Brysac's prose can be convoluted and pretentious. Kingmakers could have been one third thinner while losing none of its otherwise compelling historical narrative. Readers are bombarded with personal descriptions and anecdotes that often sideline the more critical themes discussed, including the relationship of power and domination.

We are informed, for instance, that Sir Miles Lampson was "a mountain of a man, six foot five inches tall, built like a wrestler, indefatigable as a hunter, dancer, rider, even aviator"; that Lady Lugard, "despite a fine profile, dark auburn hair, crystal blue eyes and a slim figure, was unmarried for 49 years"; that Cecil Rhodes "was a large man with a massive head and classical features and was endowed with a prodigious appetite for food, drink and tobacco". Readers are told that "one cannot sensibly explain Sir Mark Sykes' influence on Middle East policy without parsing his personal chemistry: his risk-taking spontaneity, buoyant knight-errantry and radiant charm". Such (physiognomic) details add nothing to one's comprehension of the formation of colonial policies.

In their judicious exercise to unveil the tangible faces behind the colonial mask - to "personalise" Anglo-American imperialism - the authors run the risk that readers might end up undervaluing the weight of structural, macro-sociological phenomena that, since the mid-19th century, have governed relations between Western states and colonised societies in the Global South, including the plague of racism, systemic economic exploitation, and the careless yawning and shrugging afforded to the lives and human dignities of non-Europeans (and possibly indigenous European minority communities as well).

On at least three occasions Meyer and Brysac repeat the widespread misconception that the signifier "Middle East" was coined by Alfred Mahan in 1902. Mahan's pioneering scholarship notwithstanding, he was not the first scholar to use it.

Thus, while President-elect Obama may benefit from the historical and foreign-policy lessons of Kingmakers, a trimmer and more straightforward narrative style would have made such an undertaking much more efficient and enjoyable.

Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East

By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac

W. W. Norton

480pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780393061994

Published 23 September 2008

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