Portrait of Welsh-born archaeologist, author and military leader Thomas E. Lawrence (1888 - 1935), aka 'Lawrence of Arabia', wearing a headdress. Lawrence led the Arab forces in their revolt against the Turks during and after World War I. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As the United States debates its role in the ongoing turmoil in Syria, we might do well to remember our initial foray into the region nearly a century ago. The very first American intelligence officer dispatched to that region was a 29 year-old man named William Yale. Until the United States entered World War I in April 1917, he had been living in Ottoman-controlled Syria as a local agent for the Standard Oil Company of New York. After the U.S. declared war on Germany—with whom the Ottomans were allied—Yale offered his expertise to the State Department, even if the nature of that expertise remained vague.

“I lacked a historical knowledge of the background of the problems I was studying,” Yale would recall. “I had no philosophy of history, no method of interpretation, and very little understanding of the fundamental nature and function of the [local] economic and social system.”

Hired! In short order, the 29-year-old former oilman was sent to Cairo to serve as the State Department’s Special Agent for the region, his weekly reports to Washington largely comprised of whatever bits of news he had cribbed from British intelligence reports. Perhaps his most original work was a September 12, 1918 report in which he derided the “entirely disaffected” Arab rebels who were allied with the British for “their incapacity to organize or make war”—an analysis coming on the very day those rebels launched an all-out assault that helped sweep the Turkish enemy from Syria in less than three weeks. 

It was presumably on the strength of such acumen that, at the close of World War I, Yale was hired on as an “expert on Arabian affairs” for the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. On the day he arrived in Paris, Yale was handed a 107-page briefing book that served as the principal guide in formulating American policy in Syria, and told to thoroughly study it. This didn’t require much heavy lifting on William Yale’s part; virtually all contemporary citations in the Report on the Desires of the Syrians had been drawn from a single source, a State Department Special Agent in Cairo named William Yale. 

In Paris, Yale would also be party to the first great charade of American foreign policy in the Middle East. In a bid to thwart the imperial ambitions of France and Great Britain across the vast lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire, President Woodrow Wilson, that self-proclaimed champion of “self-determination,” ordered the dispatch of a fact-finding commission to the region to gauge what its native peoples truly desired. With William Yale attached as an advisor, the American King-Crane Commission spent nearly three months traveling the breadth of “greater” Syria—a region that includes the modern nations of Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, as well as Syria—to poll delegations drawn from most every ethnic and religious community. What they heard was unequivocal and virtually unanimous. The locals didn’t want British or French control. They wanted independence or, barring that, an American-administered protectorate.

Except Woodrow Wilson had neither the political clout nor the desire for the United States to play peace-broker in the Middle East. Instead, he seemed to belatedly realize the Pandora’s Box he had opened up with his lofty talk of self-determination. As he told Congress in December 1919, in one of the most shocking admissions ever made by an American president, ““When I gave utterance to those words, I said them without the knowledge that [new] nationalities existed, [more of] which are coming to us day after day.”

As for the King-Crane Commission’s inconvenient report, it was swiftly locked away in a vault, not to be seen by the outside world until published in 1922. By then, the Middle East had been carved up to the specifications of the European imperial powers, with the United States relegated to a minor supporting role in the ensuing tragedy: the outsider that had raised hopes it might turn out differently, only to walk away in the end. For his part, William Yale finally quite the American delegation to Paris in disgust.

Recent history suggests that our foreign policy in the Middle East is still guided by the same lethal combination of arrogance, ignorance, and wishful thinking that held in Woodrow Wilson’s day.

Remember how a “liberated” Iraq was going to be transformed into a Western-tutored progressive state that would serve as a beacon for others in the region? And whatever became of the Bush Administration’s highly-touted campaign to foster democracy in the Middle East, the dispatching of Condoleeza Rice to al-Azhar University in Cairo to spread the gospel? That idea was dumped in a ditch when someone finally realized that free elections weren’t going to empower the Western-friendly moderates who frequent embassy cocktail parties, but rather Western-antagonistic groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Today, the American foreign policy community seems determined to miss the import of a process that is now accelerating across the Middle East: the final dissolution of those arbitrary frontiers imposed by the European powers with American acquiescence nearly a century ago. While no American official will publicly admit it, Iraq today is rapidly devolving into three mini-nations, drawn along those sectarian and ethnic lines that predated the Western imperial mapmakers. Libya, too, is quickly becoming a nation in name only, divided into the three tribal administrative regions that existed under the Ottomans. Now there is even open talk of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority carving out a mini-Syria from the whole, and perhaps taking Syria’s embattled Christian community with them. To those who look at all the tragedy and turmoil that has occurred in the Middle East in recent years and wonder when it might all end, the best answer is that we’re probably only getting started.

There is a very good chance that the Russian-brokered deal to stockpile and destroy Syria's chemical weapons will fall apart in the weeks or months ahead. That will spur an immediate return to the debate that has recently raged in Washington between those advocating for an expanded American role in the region and those urging we stay clear. Whatever the arguments of either camp in this debate, however, what should be greeted with the deepest skepticism is any suggestion that they really know what they're doing or where it might lead. We would also do well to keep that in mind in the future Middle Eastern crises that are almost sure to come.

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