Almost exactly a hundred years ago, the president of the United States was searching for a “deal of the century” in the Middle East. Christian academic Henry King, of Oberlin College, was no Jared Kushner. Neither he nor the industrialist Charles Crane, whose family got rich making toilets in Chicago, were sons-in-law of the American president. But Woodrow Wilson sent them on an ambitious 1919 tour across the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to find out what could be done for the Muslim and Christian Arabs and the Jews of the Middle East – and the Turks and the Armenians and the Greeks.
A hundred years ago, they reported back to Washington with a series of recommendations which would cast dark shadows for us, even today.
Unlike Kushner and the current Zionist US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, they didn’t swan into the region to talk to the richest Arabs they could find – nor did the Jews and Arabs of Palestine fail to turn up to meet them. Far from it. They wanted to know if President Wilson’s principle of national self-determination might be applied to the Holy Land.
Messers King and Crane dutifully slogged over the mountains and river-beds of the midsummer Middle East in 1919, travelled along old railtracks and horse trails and sailed the Mediterranean coast. They visited 36 cities and towns – including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Damascus, Beirut, Tripoli, Homs, Hama and Aleppo – heard directly from delegations from 1,520 villages, and received 1,863 petitions.
They fell off horses, were seasick on their voyages, ate at the table of British governors and of King Feisal. In the latter’s palace, they wore Arab clothes and embarked on a five-course meal from one giant steaming bowl – and they finally produced a report which Wilson was too ill to read and which was then suppressed by a spineless state department.
The US state department today, of course, has neither spine nor skull nor any other bodily form of existence. Trump long ago eviscerated the poor old thing. Even the ex-secretary of state had to admit that Kushner kept him in the dark. But Wilson trusted King and Crane and their assistants, even though they were all that was left of an international commission which was supposed to contain diplomats from Britain and France. Alas, Balfour and the Sykes-Picot agreement had already doomed the King-Crane commission before they set off by train from Paris through the Balkans to Constantinople.
And it is a sign of the times – of our times – that while Kushner and Trump himself are trumpeting their pitiful “deal of the century” to destroy any future Palestine in an ocean of Gulf Arab dollars, not a single American or European or Arab soul – not a remotely interested Muslim, not one Israeli – has remembered that this is the 100th anniversary of the most intensive western enquiry ever made into what the people who actually live in the Middle East want for their future. Isn’t this worth just a small commemoration in this grubby year of betrayal and danger in the Middle East?
For one of the commission’s conclusions – and Arab scholars have confirmed its veracity – was that most of the people of the Middle East region wanted to live under an American mandate. In other words, most trusted the US above all other western powers (they hated the French but also distrusted the British) to protect their unitary nation as it moved towards independence. Never was so much faith placed by the Arabs in the good name of the US – never had so much been invested in America’s demands for self-determination – before or since 1919. What an anniversary. And no wonder we have forgotten it!
We must remember that under the Ottomans, the governorate of Syria embraced what is now Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Jordan. So here is the critical section of the American report: “We are recommending … that Syria including Palestine and Lebanon be kept a unity according to desires of great majority … Syria be under a single mandate … that Emir Feisal [later King of Iraq] be King of the new Syrian State … that extreme Zionist programme [in Palestine] be seriously modified [sic] … that if for any reason America does not take mandate [sic] then it be given to Great Britain.”
So here was the commission suggesting that the British should be the principal mandatory power if the Americans did not want the job. The US, incredibly, was expected to occupy and protect a new state of Armenia from the Turkish armies which had just massacred a million and a half Armenians in the 1915 genocide; it was a moral obligation from which Washington would unheroically retreat. And in the end, of course, the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain gave its support to the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, and the Sykes-Picot agreement – by which Britain and France had already divided up the Levant between them – undermined all the aspirations of King and Crane.
The Americans thus in 1919 bowed to the old imperial powers who had, with their help, won the First World War against Germany, the Austro-Hungarians and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. When those same two powers proved their final and utter irrelevance in the Suez fiasco in 1956, America would return to power in the Middle East – and we all know what happened then. Britain had already abandoned Palestine almost a decade earlier.
To be fair, Turkey in 1919 was still in a state of incipient civil war, the Greeks – with Allied support and with five American warships providing protection – had landed at Smyrna and fought their way east towards Ankara, committing many atrocities on the way. The French military were under fire from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s growing Turkish resistance army in Cilicia. Perhaps as much of the American commission’s time was taken up with Turkey and its surrounding territory than with what we would today more narrowly define as the Middle East. When Woodrow Wilson’s principles of self-determination were washed away in his own sickness and the growing isolationism of America, was it any surprise that Washington suppressed the King-Crane commission report? Only three years later was it to be surreptitiously published in the States.
From the start, however, there were grave doubts that the US commission would even travel to the Middle East. The French, according to the American ex-diplomat Harry Howard’s important historical survey almost 40 years later, thought the Americans “too honest to deal with the Orientals” (this from the French diplomat Robert de Caix). The French did all in their power to destroy the commission and persuaded Lloyd George to pull out of it. Yet the future King Feisal wrote to Wilson that when his delegates visited [greater] Syria, they would “find a country united in its love and gratitude to America”.
When the Americans originally set off, they carried bundles of documents to read on the first part of their journey, from Zionist tracts to guidebooks, one of Gertrude Bell’s first volumes and even Charles Doughty’s 1888 volume, Travels in Arabia Deserta.
But there is an intriguing, indeed disturbing note in a memorandum by one of the King-Crane technical staff travelling with the team, which observed that “it is necessary to point out the extreme importance to the American nation of maintaining a strong position in the petroleum trade … It is a fact that the native petroleum resources of the United States are becoming exhausted … with our own supplies about to decline … the necessity of guaranteeing now to American industry the right to have its part in the development of the petroleum resources of the [Middle East] territories about to pass under British control will be apparent.”
Whoops! Here comes Big Brother Oil, all of a hundred years ago, to dampen all those nice American eulogies about national self-determination for the region.
And there is something distasteful to hear the commission preaching that in Palestine, the British “must guard the holy places and the entire territory for the benefit of all the people interested, and not simply for the Jews” when most of the commission’s staff accepted the terms of the Balfour Declaration. Besides, in the words of one Jewish leader (Felix Frankfurter) in a letter to Wilson, “as a passionate American I am, of course, most eager that the Jews should be a constructive and not a disruptive force in the new world order”.
British governors and generals supplied high tea and dinners for the American visitors to Palestine and General Allenby himself, liberator of Jerusalem and Damascus, lent the Americans his personal yacht, the Maid of Honour, to travel the coast of the Levant.
King and Crane suspected some of the many local petitions were presented by hand-picked Arabs. A Christian-Muslim committee favoured Syrian unity with Palestine, all under British mandate (thus allowing the Brits to run France’s chosen territory of Syria/Lebanon, already agreed by Sykes and Picot). Then a Zionist delegation pleaded for a Jewish National Home in accordance with Balfour. Many Muslims and a large proportion of the Christians and perhaps some Jews claimed that Syria – again, they were talking of the land which is today Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel and Jordan – was “nearly or entirely capable of full self-government, though needing for a time … advice and financial aid”.
Charles Crane would conclude that the vast number of Muslims, Maronite (Catholics), Druze and other Christian sects whose families had emigrated to America “were intensely loyal” to the US and thus had “made the people of Syria and Palestine trust America”. The existence of what is now the American University of Beirut added to the lustre of the US. Only the Zionist Jews, about a tenth of the population, favoured the establishment of the Jewish national home; the Arabs said they “owned … the land … the Arabs were there before the Jews came … they [the Jews] were … expelled by the Romans and formed permanent residence [sic] elsewhere 1,300 years ago.”
By the time King and Crane reached Damascus, they were confronted by demands from “the People of the Coast” who demanded “the complete independence of Syria with its natural boundaries, the Taurus mountains [ie, the southern Turkish border] in the North. The two rivers of Khabour and Euphrates in the East, the line between Akaba [sic] and Rafa in the South and the Mediterranean Sea in the West.” In other words, everything between the Egyptian frontier, central Iraq and the sea. “We refuse the immigration of the Zionists to our country and the making of Palestine … a native home for the Jews,” the demands continued – although it was interesting that their refusal of French tutelage to a Syrian state was apparently more important to the “People of the Coast” than their fear of Jewish settlement.
The mayor of Damascus, the Mufti, the Kadi and others wanted American rule because it cared for humanity, had entered the First World War on behalf of oppressed nations and was “very rich”. In Lebanon, where feminism was proving as strong as it was in post-war Egypt, King and Crane visited a women’s trade school above Beirut and received a delegation of Muslim women, led by Ibtihaje Kaddourah, who demanded not only independence but the right of development which would assure Syria a place “among the responsible nations of the world”. But for one American team member, the US had “made very definite promises to the Jews”, the implementation of which would cause “untold difficulties with the Muslims and political complications at home”.
The French, more heavy-handed than the Brits, pushed delegations at the Americans when they visited the Syrian (now Lebanese) city of Tripoli, the Christians favouring a French mandate given priority over the Muslims favouring complete independence. With “near riots” breaking out, King recorded that his delegation had witnessed “the most barefaced suppression of opinion anywhere seen.” But the Americans had at least talked to the people who lived in the Middle East.
“Dangers may readily arise from unwise and unfaithful dealings with these people,” they would conclude, “but there is great hope of peace and progress if they be handled [sic] frankly and loyally.” Cynics must not smile. But these were false hopes for the Arabs, provoking Gertrude Bell to denounce the King-Crane commission as a criminal deception. King Feisal, who addressed the Americans with great eloquence, was subsequently dethroned from Damascus by the French military and handed Iraq as a compensation prize by Winston Churchill. Iraq had already been under direct rule by London – King and Crane never visited what was then called Mesopotamia.
Was it all for nothing? There had come from the commission one other warning. “Not only you as president,” it told Wilson, “but the American people as a whole should realise that if the American government decided to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, they are committing the American people to the use of force in that area, since only by force can a Jewish state in Palestine be established or maintained.”
Crane, a Democratic Party supporter who would campaign for the independence of Czechoslovakia, himself opposed the establishment of a Jewish state. But there were later and grave moral doubts about the bathroom facilities manufacturer from Chicago. In the 1930s, he expressed admiration for the Nazis, allegedly telling America’s new ambassador to Berlin that he should resist social invitations from German Jews and advising him: “Let Hitler have his way.” Crane would die in February 1939, aware that the same Hitler had destroyed Czech freedom but before he could know all that such terrible advice could mean. Henry Churchill King, the longest serving president of Oberlin College, died five years earlier, a Congregationalist whose work in the lands of the Bible, which he so assiduously studied, was largely ignored.
In those days, knowledge of the Bible was still regarded as good training for an understanding of the Middle East. Today, statesmen prefer to think that a working knowledge of the Koran might be more useful. In truth, history might be a better weathervane in the affairs of men and women who choose to decide the future of the region. But that would be too much to ask when Woodrow Wilson’s successors prefer cash handouts, a “deal of the century” and talk of “issues” and “negativity” in the halls of a Bahrain hotel.