Author(s): Karl Meyer
History | No Category
Tracing today's troubles back to the imperial overreach of Great Britain and the United States, "Kingmakers" is the story of how the Middle East came to be, told through the lives of the Britons and Americans who shaped it. Some are famous (Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell); others infamous (Harry St John Philby, father of Kim); some forgotten (Sir Mark Sykes, Israel's godfather, and A.T. Wilson, the territorial creator of Iraq); some controversial (the CIA's Miles Copeland and the Pentagon's Paul Wolfowitz). All helped enthrone rulers in a region whose very name is an Anglo-American invention. Here is the British Empire's power couple, Lord and Lady Lugard (Flora Shaw): she named Nigeria, he ruled it; she used the power of "The Times" to attempt a regime change in the Transvaal. The character-driven narrative restores to life the colourful figures who gave us the Middle East in which we are enmeshed today.
'Intelligence was faulty.' 'Who could have foreseen?' 'Mistakes were made.' These were among the excuses given by British officials following General Gordon's disastrous foray into the Sudan against the Mahdi Army in 1884-85, which ended; as legend has it, with his simultaneous puncturing by the spears of four dervishes. According to Kingmakers: The Invention of the Middle East, 'those who forget the history of Western encounters with the Middle East really do seem doomed to repeat it.' This book is the follow-up to Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac's Tournament of Shadows, a swashbuckling account of the Great Game in Central Asia. Kingmakers' examines the similar phenomenon of Western meddling and imperialism in the Arabian lands of the Middle East and North Africa, through a series of biographical essays. The subjects range in time and nationality from the British consul-general Lord Cromer, who secured control of Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the recent American deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz and his adventures in Iraq. Meyer and Brysac have some captivating stories to tell. There is the 1921 coronation of the Hashemite prince Faisal as king of Iraq, crowned, according to one report, upon a throne hastily constructed from old Asahi beer crates. There is the very different ceremony that installed the former stablehand Reza Khan Pahlavi as shah of Iran in 1926, for which Vita Sackville-West delved wrist-deep in trays of emeralds and pearls from Persian jewel vaults to select his regalia. Above all, there is the career of T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, who rode around the Middle East derailing Ottoman supply trains, recruiting mercenariesto the British cause and bribing Arab leaders (occasionally by mistake: once, he was so careless as to send 25,000 pounds in gold to the wrong prince). Finally, Meyer and Brysac describe the modern successors to these interventionist Britons: interventionist Americans, whose eccentricities and failures have been neither less colorful nor less evident.... Meyer and Brysac provide some fascinating material on American relations with Ibn Saud and the exploitation of Saudi oil. The essay on how Wolfowitz convinced himself that what Iraq needed was the imposition of democracy is enlightening and commendably balanced. And the tale of C.I.A. involvement in the 1953 oil-prompted coup in Iran is marvelously told, down to the appealing detail of the operative Kermit Roosevelt listening to 'Luck Be a Lady Tonight' on his phonograph while he awaited the shah's agreement to to the American cause. . . Meyer and Brysac conclude that their kingmakers 'erred not through malice or ignorance but through excess of ambition.' similarly, their book is admirably fair-minded and well researched. Had it played more to its strengths of adding color and depth to the story of American involvement in the Middle East, it could have been accused neither of lacking ambition nor of error. -- Alex von Tunzelmann "Meddle East" (08/10/2008)
* KARL E. MEYER has written extensively in The New York Times and the Washington Post. SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC, formerly a prize-winning documentary producer at CBS News, is the author of Resisting Hitler. Their previous book was Tournament of Shadows.