Imperialism is defined as the policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations. The British Empire’s reign expanded through the invasion of ninety percent of the countries on Planet Earth, including those of Western Asia (the “Middle East”). This region remains riddled with violent strife. Duplicity by the Allies during the World War I era is the root of the injustice and accompanying conflict that continues between Western Asia and Western powers. Today, the imperialist drives of the US and NATO are continuing the bloodshed in this region for the sake of economic exploitation.
By 1916, British forces battling the armies of the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia were suffering great losses. Facing defeat, the Crown dispatched British Army officer Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence—also known as “Lawrence of Arabia”—to ally the Arab tribes against their Ottoman rulers. Lawrence promised the native peoples their independence in return for fighting alongside the British. Lured by these guarantees of self-rule, indigenous leaders agreed. The Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 was instrumental in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. But the Allied Powers had their own desires to exploit the vast resources of the region. They never intended independence for the Arabs.
Beginning in 1915, representatives from France, England, and Russia conducted clandestine negotiations to divide up Ottoman territories—their anticipated spoils of war—between them. In May 1916, the final deal apportioning control of Arab lands to colonial powers was signed by British politician Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot—just as T.E. Lawrence was promising Arabs their independence in exchange for their help. The stealthy Sykes-Picot Agreement rendered the Crown’s guarantees of self-determination meaningless. (If only the Arabs could have consulted with the indigenous of the Americas on what promises mean to European colonizers.)
In 1917, as the Allies (with the help of the Arabs) were rallying to win World War I, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration. This decree regarding a Jewish home in Palestine was named for Arthur James Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary. Balfour had been strongly influenced by British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann since their initial meeting in 1906. Though most leaders of British Jewry at the time were opposed to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Weizmann—considered to be one of the fathers of the Zionist movement—garnered Balfour’s support for the Zionist agenda. The very brief Declaration stated:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The British had not yet taken control of the Holy Land, but that didn’t stop them from promising its future to both the indigenous Palestinians and the global Jewish population. In 1917, less than ten percent of the inhabitants of Palestine were Jews—many of whom were recent immigrants brought by the Zionist movement between 1905 and 1914. No one had asked the more-than-ninety percent “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” if the creation of a “national home” on their land—which excluded them—was acceptable. Israel was established as a colonial settler state.
At the end of World War I in 1918, the Arab peoples (including Iraqis, Syrians, and Palestinians) triumphantly declared their liberation from colonial rule according to their pre-war agreements with the Allied powers. However, as a result of the Sykes-Picot pact, the Balfour Declaration, and the newly formed League of Nations, these lands remained under foreign control (albeit a different foreign power). The League of Nations was created in 1919 for the purpose of preventing another world war. Even though one of its founding principles was the concept of national self-determination, the League rejected Arab declarations of sovereignty. Subsequently, at the 1920 Conference of San Remo, France obtained mandates over Syria and Lebanon, while the British gained Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq.
The “mandates” in the Arab World were commissions from the League of Nations that authorized France and Great Britain to govern over each region. From the British perspective, the mandates were distinct from the exploitative colonialism of the previous era because of the League’s requirement for a local constitutional government. The Crown considered the mandate concept as a transitional stage towards Arab autonomy, reflecting “the spirit of the age” of national independence. For the indigenous peoples, however, the term “mandate” was nothing more than a euphemism for imperialism—and their continued subjugation.
The peoples’ anger spawned massive independence movements against their new rulers. They had bled and died fighting the Ottomans for their liberation. Through the mid- and later twentieth century, they would fight the British, French, and other colonial powers who had betrayed them.
The people of the lands whose riches are coveted by imperial powers must endure an almost constant battle amongst those vying for external control, as well as bear the burden of indigenous struggle for independence. Such is the history of much of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Such is the root of much of the conflict in the “Middle East” today.
The colonial state of Israel continues to expand its borders with illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Israeli government maps suggest planned annexation of the majority of this land. Through their expulsion from the 1940s through today, Palestinians remain the largest refugee population in the world.
Countries like Iraq, Libya, and Syria finally gained their independence from foreign powers and took control of their oil industries. Along with Iran (following the Islamic revolution in 1979), these three countries were the major forces countering Western hegemony in the region in modern times. But those Western powers—and their multinational corporations—want their profitable colonial relationship back.
In the early twentieth century, to honor “the spirit of the age” of national independence, the imperialists called their colonial possessions “mandates.” Now in the early twenty-first century, imperialists—armed with far more advanced weapons technology—call their re-domination of these countries “humanitarian intervention for regime change.” Our imperial leaders tell us that we must save the indigenous people from their state, in particular, the use of weapons of mass destruction. In Iraq and Libya, the people are much worse off today than before our “humanitarian interventions” via military assault. Bombing raids and the subsequent replacement of secular states with theocracies have resulted in death, destruction, and further loss of freedoms for the survivors. As Western oil companies and military industries reap the profits, the parasitic colonial relationship is re-established. No matter what euphemism our government uses for its policy, it’s still imperialism. And it still stinks.
- Neff, Donald. “Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days That Changed the Middle East.” Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, New York. 1984. p.21
- Munier, Gilles. “Iraq: An Illustrated History and Guide.” Interlink Books, Northampton. 2004. p.32
- Owen, Roger. “State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East, 3rd Edition.” Routledge, New York. 2004. p.6
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