April 18, 2021


REVIEW: of How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs by Elizabeth F. Thompson (Sunil Dasgupta, April 18, 2021, Washington Independent Review of Books)

Even before the fighting had ended, however, the Arabs, British, and French, who had established colonial interests along the Mediterranean coast, began to vie over postwar spoils. This is where Thompson begins her story: with Faisal rushing to take control of the strategic and historic city of Damascus, which was the cultural and political heart of the Arab world.

Once Faisal captured the Syrian city, a broad coalition of nationalist and Islamist leaders banded together to support a constitutional monarchy. In March 1920, they formed the Syrian Arab Congress and created a liberal democratic Arab state. The Syrian Arab Congress brought together Shia and Sunni Muslims and conceived of a pan-Arab state that stretched from the Mediterranean coast -- which became Lebanon -- to Damascus and all the way to Baghdad and Persia.

But these valiant efforts failed in the face of British betrayal, French ambition, and American ambivalence. The British did not live up to their wartime promise to support Arab independence, having struck a secret deal with the French in 1916 that divided Middle East lands between them. News of the settlement emerged after World War I as the League of Nations covenant kept this agreement in place, dubbing the European spheres of influence in the Middle East "mandates," a concept suggesting tutelage for nations supposedly unprepared for self-rule.

The efforts of the French colonial lobby were the most forceful. French Premier Georges Clemenceau, normally an anti-imperialist, became embroiled in competition with Britain over oil and influence. The more conservative government that succeeded him launched a brutal military campaign against Faisal's new kingdom. The Syrian Arab Congress blamed Faisal for trusting European powers and for continuing to accommodate imperial demands. As the demands for defense mounted, Faisal dissolved the Congress and went into exile.

The American ambivalence was perhaps most surprising, as President Woodrow Wilson was an advocate of national self-determination and believed in the Arab cause. His position was bolstered by an American court judgment that declared Arabs to be white, an important distinction in Wilson's mind (he saw race as a defining capacity for self-rule).

During the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Wilson advocated strongly for Arab independence but was outmaneuvered by British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Wilson's stroke and incapacitation following his return to the United States all but ended American support for the Arab cause.

Thompson argues that the Western betrayal was ultimately rooted in race. Rather than seeing Arabs as free humans, Europeans (and likely many Americans) perceived them as inferior and therefore in need of guidance on the path to self-rule, which covered imperial ambition under the mask of help.

Wilson's willingness to give Europe its colonies in exchange for his League was the most shameful episode in American history that did not involve enslaving or segregating blacks, which he also approved of.

Posted by at April 18, 2021 9:14 AM