A Line in the Sand by James Barr - Book Review

By James Barasch on December 15, 2012

As the reformers of the Arab Spring struggle to realize their dreams of stable, peaceful democratic government in a region so fractured by religious and ethnic hatred, I sought to better acquaint myself with the roots of their struggle. Though the roots of instability and violence run deep in the Levant and the Middle East, with that area playing host to over 5000 years of turbulent human history, historian James Barr argues in his work A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East that they actually lie in far more recent events.

Barr continues the historical tradition of reexamining colonial history by exploring the rivalry between France and Britain for dominance in the Middle East between and during the World Wars. He explains that their selfish scramble for prestige, power and natural resources ultimately left the region more chaotic and disorganized than before they assumed their “custodial mandates.” Barr does not hold any punches, and the overall picture of these ‘progressive’ Western Powers is neocolonial, hypocritical and mired in the struggle for prominence.

Barr begins his tale in 1915, when the world was immersed in the chaos of World War I. He examines the fateful Sykes-Picot Agreement between the governments of France and Great Britain, which outlined the future division of middle-eastern lands that had belonged to their mutual enemy, the Ottoman Empire. This agreement led in 1919 to the partition of the Ottoman Levant, with Britain receiving direct mandates over Palestine and Transjordan, and France over Lebanon and Syria from the newly-formed League of Nations.

However, Barr is not solely concerned with the great treaties and pronouncements that absorb most interest in diplomatic history, and the vast majority of his book is profoundly micro-historical and semi-biographical. Barr draws much of his source material from the personal diaries and records of journalists, spies, assassins, bureaucrats and low-level negotiators who were at the front lines of the diplomatic sparring match that distracted and dominated relations between the two democratic powers of Europe throughout the interwar period.

Despite the Wilsonian ideals of Democracy and self-determination used by France and Britain to justify their dominion over the Middle East, they remained in the region to solidify their dominance over strategic and natural resources, only investing enough to keep the minimum peace necessary for their economic extraction policies to proceed apace.

The goals of Britain and France for being in the Middle East during the 1920s and 30s were simple: control of oil fields, strategic oil pipelines, and the Suez Canal, which was key to the maintenance of the colonial empires of both powers. However, France and Britain rarely worked together, and both took to fomenting and secretly supplying rebellions in each other’s territories to make their own rule look comparatively more peaceful and orderly. The Machiavellian “cut and thrust” of these two powers lasted until the carnage of World War II, and the spiraling costs of frequent Levantine rebellions rendered both Britain and France unable to sustain even the illusion of control. In their haste to leave in the late 1940s, they drew the arbitrary “lines in the sand” that disregarded tribal and ethnic divisions, decisions that would prove lethal to millions in later decades, as seen in the current ethnic chaos of Syria.

James Barr’s work is thoroughly researched and sheds light on a largely underexplored topic. Anecdotal and character-driven, A Line in the Sand dramatizes the extent and bitterness of the Anglo-French rivalry in the Levant, while simultaneously evoking the chaos, confusion and avarice of mandate government. It is an easily-accessible and enjoyable work.

Rating: 4/5

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