I am going to introduce a little known fact about the United States of America and the Middle East, namely Washington D.C.’s first attempts and the beginning of almost 100 years of policies concerning Western Asia.
Today’s Middle East is a confusing mess and it is possible to trace the chaos back to the days after World War I, Britain’s Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed by London and Paris.
The latter, an almost 100-year-old diplomatic document, has done more to cause the troubles of the region than any other document on record. But first, what is Sykes-Picot?
Also called Asia Minor Agreement (May 9, 1916), [is a] secret convention made during World War I between Great Britain and France, with the assent of imperial Russia, for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement led to the division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French – and British – administered areas. Negotiations were begun in November 1915, and the final agreement took its name from its negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France. Its provisions were as follows: (1) Russia should acquire the Armenian provinces of Erzurum, Trebizond (Trabzon), Van, and Bitlis, with some Kurdish territory to the southeast; (2) France should acquire Lebanon and the Syrian littoral, Adana, Cilicia, and the hinterland adjacent to Russia’s share, that hinterland including Aintab, Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbakır, and Mosul; (3) Great Britain should acquire southern Mesopotamia, including Baghdad, and also the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and ʿAkko (Acre); (4) Between the French and the British acquisitions there should be a confederation of Arab states or a single independent Arab state, divided into French and British spheres of influence; (5) Alexandretta (İskenderun) should be a free port; (6) Palestine, because of the holy places, should be under an international regime. This secret arrangement conflicted in the first place with pledges already given by the British to the Hāshimite dynast Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, sharif of Mecca, who was about to bring the Arabs of the Hejaz into revolt against the Turks on the understanding that the Arabs would eventually receive a much more important share of the fruits of victory. It also excited the ambitions of Italy, to whom it was communicated in August 1916, after the Italian declaration of war against Germany, with the result that it had to be supplemented, in April 1917, by the Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, whereby Great Britain and France promised southern and southwestern Anatolia to Italy. The defection of Russia from the war canceled the Russian aspect of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Turkish Nationalists’ victories after the military collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the gradual abandonment of its projects for Anatolia. The Arabs, however, who had learned of the Sykes-Picot Agreement through the publication of it, together with other secret treaties of imperial Russia, by the Soviet Russian government late in 1917, were scandalized by it, and their resentment persisted despite the modification of its arrangements for the Arab countries by the Allies’ Conference of San Remo in April 1920. (Britannica)
The King–Crane Commission, officially called the 1919 Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey, was an official investigation by the United States government concerning the disposition of non-Turkish areas within the former Ottoman Empire. It was conducted to inform American policy about the region’s people and their desired future in regard to the previously decided partitioning of the Ottoman Empire and the League of Nations Mandate System. The Commission visited areas of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Anatolia, surveyed local public opinion, and assessed its view on the best course of action for the region. The Commission was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson and comprised Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane. It began work in June 1919 and produced its report on 28 August 1919, though the report was not published until 1922.
The Commission’s work was undercut from the beginning by continuing and competing colonialist designs on the part of the United Kingdom and France, as indicated by their previous secret deals, their lack of a similar belief in public opinion as well as the commission’s late start, and encountered delays; the 1919 Paris Peace Conference had largely concluded the area’s future by the time the report was finished.
King concluded that while the Middle East was “not ready” for independence, a colonial government would not serve the people well either. He recommended instead that the Americans move in to occupy the region, because only the United States could be trusted to guide the people to self-sufficiency and independence rather than become an imperialist occupier. From King’s personal writings, it seems that his overriding concern was the morally correct course of action, not necessarily tempered by politics or pragmatism. The Republicans had regained control of the U. S. Senate in 1918, and as isolationists, the probability of a huge military adventure and occupation overseas, even given British and French approval, was practically nil.
This commission gave the illusion that the White House was truly concerned about the region and its possibility for “self-determination”, it was a worthless waste of time and thus began the American “interest” in the Middle East. Almost 100 years later, we still believe that the US is the only guide that the people of Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq) needs.
The Report was not intended to be published until the US Senate actually passed the Treaty of Versailles, which it never did. As a result, the report was only released to the public in 1922, after the Senate and House had passed a joint resolution favoring the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine along the lines of the Balfour Declaration.
Some things never change.