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Originally published Sunday, August 11, 2013 at 5:05 AM

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‘Lawrence in Arabia’: blueprint for disaster in the Middle East

Scott Anderson’s new nonfiction book “Lawrence in Arabia” is a dazzling work of history that reads like a courtroom thriller, about T.E. Lawrence and the World War I-era political double-dealing that created the modern Middle East.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East’

by Scott Anderson

Doubleday, 592 pp., $28.95

World War I is most often remembered as a horrific mélange of European trench warfare, mustard gas and staggering losses, all triggered by senseless imperial alliances between inbred royalty. But in the Arabian Peninsula, a sideshow played out between the Arab population, their Turkish colonial rulers and western European powers that defined the modern Middle East. A young English officer — T.E. Lawrence — stood in the middle of that maelstrom, and seized control through initiative, political insight and derring-do.

Scott Anderson’s newly released “Lawrence in Arabia” is a brilliant review of the shifting alliances and cross currents in what most considered a secondary theater of conflict. Based on years of intensive research, the volume provides an overview of the war and how its resolution created the disastrously unstable modern Middle East. It is a dazzling accomplishment that combines superb historical research with a compelling narrative equal to any courtroom thriller.

Anderson, a former war correspondent and author of both novels and nonfiction, weaves together four separate stories. Curt Prufer was a German embassy attaché in Cairo, fomenting jihad against British rule in Egypt. Aaron Aaronsohn was a committed Zionist running an anti-Ottoman spy ring. William Yale was a young American employed by the Standard Oil Company, which cared a lot less about who won the war than it did about extracting immensely valuable oil concessions. (Some things never change). And, of course, at the center of the story was T.E. Lawrence, a young British officer with a notoriously bad attitude about appropriate attire and his superiors.

Rather than even attempt to understand the local Arab population or to focus on winning the war, the British and French devoted years to haggling over how to divide up the spoils of a war rather decidedly not yet won.

Lawrence, by contrast, had a deep understanding of Middle Eastern geography and history on arrival and seized every opportunity to expand that formidable knowledge. Lawrence ultimately rode with Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, the third son of Hussein bin Ali, the Grand Sharif of Mecca. Faisal was a leader of a pan-Arab coalition of fighters hoping to establish a postwar independent Arab state.

Betraying his own country, Lawrence revealed that, despite promises to Faisal, the British and French had secretly agreed (in the Sykes-Picot Treaty) to divide between themselves the entire peninsula. As a realist, Lawrence understood that the Arabs would have the strongest claim only to that territory that they liberated from Ottoman rule and, with that insight, helped lead an improvised Arab army across deserts in a series of improbable victories.

Lawrence gained celebrity but, as Anderson recounts, everything he “had fought for, schemed for, arguably betrayed his country for, turned to ashes in a single five-minute conversation between the prime ministers of Great Britain and France.” With the war ending, the two great powers not only affirmed the Sykes-Picot Treaty but went further, taking more and giving their ostensible Arab allies even less.

Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident in 1935. He was 47 years old. The pan-Arabian independent nation Lawrence fought for likely would not have survived its own internal differences, nor is it likely that such a nation would have been any more receptive to the establishment of an independent Israel, but it’s difficult to imagine how events could have turned out worse.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.

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