Versailles: Arab Desires, Arab Futures

This is the second installment of a six-part series on how the 1919 Treaty of Versailles shaped our present age. Read series editor Joanne Randa Nucho’s introduction here.
What forms of political community did the people of the Middle East imagine for themselves following World War I?

Public perceptions of the Middle East are still crowded with narratives of “artificiality.” In conspiring to share out the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces—so we are told—France and Britain “fabricated” new states that had no basis in the region’s political and social history and whose borders were mere “lines in the sand.”1 In this telling, states like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq were troubled, Frankenstein-like creations; made in the image of the nation-state, they would never quite come to possess all its attributes, but would experience only inner turmoil and disorder. Assembled with scarcely any regard for religious or ethnic cohesion, these congeries of people were, in the words of the conservative political thinker Elie Kedourie, “ramshackle” constructs, fated to fall apart sooner or later.2 In this awkward engineering, the people of the region played no part; reduced to walk-on roles in their own history, they found themselves citizens of new states that meant nothing to them. Indeed, we are told that such meaning would have been impossible: the masses were, Kedourie insisted, “extremely heterogeneous”; religion remained, in David Fromkin’s words, “the basis of political life” for the majority; and Western modernity represented for most an alien and threatening force.3

What if such a narrative, however, leaves out the region’s people and their desires? What if nations like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq fulfilled—for some, at least—genuine political aspirations and demands for self-determination? In short, is it not time to ask what worlds were possible in 1919 and 1920, when the great powers gathered in Paris to determine the postwar settlement, drawing up a new state system for the Middle East? And, in particular, what forms of political community did the people of the region imagine at this crucial moment?

I want to give one answer to these questions by returning to the King-Crane Commission, dispatched by Woodrow Wilson to the Levant in mid-1919 to canvass the opinions of its inhabitants, and the ways subsequent generations of historians and political commentators have understood its findings. Most have seen it as a marker of what might have been, had the US not acceded to French and British imperial chicanery and perfidy, and a reminder of the vaulting hopes and crashing disappointments of what the historian Erez Manela called “the Wilsonian moment”—when the hopes of colonized people across the world unduly attached to the American president and thus briefly made him an “icon” of anti-colonial struggle.

There is another way to understand the King-Crane Commission’s report. I suggest that the petitions the commission received constitute a rich archive of this historical moment’s indigenous thought. In their resolute demands for self-determination, these petitions provide a powerful riposte to those who would still insist that the states of the region are little more than artificial constructs, assembled a hundred years ago by imperial administrators out of heterogeneous ethnic and sectarian groups who had—and still have—little in common.

When they called for the creation of Syrian, Iraqi, or Lebanese states, the signatories of these petitions were not puppets in the hands of European ventriloquists. Nor were they simply adopting “Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination,” as Manela has suggested. Rather, their demands were the distillation of long-standing debates over the shape of political community and, as the historian Hussein Omar recently put it in a rejoinder to Manela, “the nature and meaning” of freedom and independence. Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—as scholars like Carol Hakim, James Gelvin, and Sara Pursley have shown—were no more the inventions of European adventurers and colonial theorists than were Arab demands for self-determination derived from Wilson’s 14 points.

It behooves us, therefore, to look not only at what was being said and decided in Versailles but also—and just as importantly—at what Arabs themselves were asking for, and the kinds of futures they envisioned for themselves.

What if the creation of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq fulfilled genuine political aspirations and demands for self-determination?

Officially known as the American Section of the Inter-Allied Commission of Mandates in Turkey, the commission was headed up by the scholar Henry Churchill King, along with the businessman and Democratic supporter Charles R. Crane. Its members arrived in Jaffa, then in British-occupied Palestine, on June 10, 1919. They had been sent to the Levant by the US government to “get as accurate and definite information as possible concerning the conditions, the relations, and the desires of all the peoples and classes concerned in order that President Wilson … may act with full knowledge of the facts.”4

For just over five weeks, the commissioners traveled through present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, and southern Turkey. Stopping in 36 towns and cities along the way, they received 1,863 petitions, both written and oral, from mayors and municipal councils, village councils, “Moslem Christian committees,” professional and trade guilds, “Young Men’s Clubs,” and other sundry delegations.

Over a thousand of these petitions, the commissioners found, called for the creation of a unified Syrian state, which would include in its borders present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel. (These entreaties replicated what the commissioners called the “Damascus program”: the demands set down by the Syrian General Congress, the constituent assembly of the new Arab state established in Damascus in October 1918.) Eager for their report to reflect majority opinion, King and Crane seconded this program for the creation of a unified Syrian state and specified that, as requested, such a state would take the form of a “constitutional monarchy along democratic lines” and would be ruled by the Hashemite Amir Faysal.

In this new Syrian state envisioned by the commissioners, neither Lebanon nor Palestine would have a separate existence, though Lebanon would maintain a “large measure of local autonomy.” This new state, the commissioners argued, should be placed under an American mandate, which would be limited in both its powers and duration. Moreover, they recommended “serious modification of the extreme Zionist program for Palestine of unlimited immigration of Jews, looking finally to make Palestine distinctly a Jewish State.”5

Swallowed up in the entrails of American bureaucracy, the King-Crane report was published only two years later, in 1922. By then, it was too late. Even if he had been committed to championing the report’s ideas—and it is by no means clear he was—Wilson was gone from the scene. His body ravaged by a stroke, he had retired from office in 1921.

Meanwhile, France and Britain pressed on with their own plans for the region. In April 1920, at the San Remo Conference, the two wartime allies were allocated the mandates for Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. In July, French troops defeated the forces of the Arab kingdom at Maysalun, on the outskirts of Damascus. On September 1, Greater Lebanon was created, becoming the most important of the units into which the French divided Syria. Finally, in December 1922 the League of Nations issued the terms of Britain’s mandate for Palestine. These made the “Mandatory … responsible for putting into effect” the Balfour declaration, with its commitment to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”6

In almost every respect, then, the King-Crane report was a dead letter. The independent greater Syrian state it had called for did not come to pass. Instead, the proposed state was replaced by smaller political units under European overrule. (Syria itself, placed like Lebanon under French mandate, was divided until the mid-1920s into statelets on sectarian or regional lines.) Similarly, the report’s concerns about Zionist activities in Palestine were passed over. It is perhaps no surprise, given all this, that so many subsequent historians see the report as exemplifying the postwar years’ hopes and failures.

In the near-century since its publication, what has most troubled the report’s readers is the question of its “accuracy,” so central to the commissioners’ scientistic ambitions. Some have charged its authors—Charles Crane in particular—with antisemitism and a patent hostility toward European and Zionist actions that warped and distorted their assessments.

Others, however, have read the report rather differently. The Lebanese-Palestinian historian and political activist George Antonius deemed it, in The Arab Awakening (1938), “the only source to which the historian can turn for a disinterested and wholly objective analysis of the state of feeling in Arab political circles” after the First World War. Similarly, there is little doubt for Ussama Makdisi as to the report’s importance and accuracy. In his elegiac 2010 account of US-Arab relations, Faith Misplaced, Makdisi described the report as providing “extraordinary detail [of] precisely what the people of Syria, including Lebanon and Palestine, desired in their overwhelming majority.” For such historians, the disregard the great powers showed for the report’s findings is symptomatic of the broader process by which—in Elizabeth Thompson’s evocative phrase—“democracy was stolen from the Arabs” by European imperialists utterly impervious to local demands.7

To these scholars, as Andrew Patrick has put it in his book on King-Crane, the commission’s work represents a “great ‘what-if’ in the history of the modern Middle East.”8 What if the Allies had listened to the Arabs? What if the peace conference had allowed Faysal to remain on the throne of a democratic Arab kingdom that incorporated Lebanon and Palestine? What if the great powers had done more to stem Zionist colonization, ignoring the Balfour declaration? What if the US had accepted a mandate over the region?

Such counterfactuals, for exponents of the “what if” school, offer a tantalizing glimpse of another future. They present a different history, in which a century of regional conflict might have been averted and the US might perhaps have truly played the role of just arbiter.

Assumptions about public opinion inadvertently set the Arab kingdom up to fail.

But even some historians of the Middle East have seen these questions as moot. The commission’s work, in James Gelvin’s crisp summation, was “doomed from the beginning.”9 Whatever its members’ views, and whatever those of their interlocutors, they stood little chance of altering the new territorial order settled upon at the peace conference. Better, then, to focus on what this episode tells us about American views of international order, race, and nation building, and about the efficacy of international commissions.

“In diplomacy, as in physics,” argues Gelvin, “neutral observers do not exist.”10 The very attempt to collect opinion, in other words, shapes that opinion; the questions—and the identity of the questioner—determine the answers.

The American commissioners and the Arab government in Damascus both assumed that the only public opinion that counted was that of the “informed,” enlightened segments of society. This assumption inadvertently set the Arab kingdom up to fail. Since the nationalist “elites” of Syria “were oriented toward Europe and the peace conference … they designed institutions and propaganda campaigns for the purpose of presenting to an outside audience an image” of sophistication; yet these same elites never really bothered with the trickier task of giving “nonelites” a meaningful stake “in their nationalist project.”

Meanwhile, the key question for Patrick is not why the commission failed or even what its interlocutors said, but “why” the commission’s members “arrive[d] at their respective conclusions.” This, he argues, had less to do with what they were told than with their own prior stances on the international system, the US’s place within that system, and the capacity of non-European peoples to become modern—and therefore up to the task of being sovereign over their own affairs.

To his credit, Patrick does at least regard the petitions submitted to the commission as expressions of “legitimate political choices.” But his interest in the normative luggage the commissioners carried with them leads him to dismiss a little too readily the indigenous texts. These, he concludes, ultimately yield “little new information.” He isn’t alone in expressing this view. “The rhetoric of the petitions,” social historian Michael Reimer finds, is “tediously uniform”; for the most part, they provide evidence only of the Arab government’s capacity “to achieve an impressive appearance of consensus.”11 But it is entirely possible—as Lori Allen’s work on international commissions and the question of Palestine has shown—to accept that these bodies’ work is shaped by their members’ epistemic and ideological predispositions, while also taking seriously their respondents’ claims and arguments. On the one hand, Allen has shown, “it is emotion that has consistently been” these bodies’ “crucial evidence, and reading affect their method.” The members of the King-Crane Commission, like those of subsequent investigatory bodies, sought affective evidence. They set out to measure Palestinian and Arab “sympathy, … anger, … pathos, and … suffering,” and to probe the depth of local “nationalist enthusiasms.”

By contrast, Allen has argued elsewhere, their Arab interlocutors strove to present “political” and ethical “principles, reasoned arguments, legal” evidence, “statements … and … testimonies.” In 1919, Arab respondents specifically rejected Zionist colonization. They did so because they held Zionism’s linguistic, cultural, and economic exclusivism to be “a danger to the ethic of religious tolerance and social inclusivity” that lay at the heart of their own Arab nationalism, with its stress on confessional concord and minority rights.

And so, for all the supposed good intentions of the King-Crane Commission’s members, theirs was ultimately a dialogue of the deaf. The commissioners were interested chiefly in weighing the “authenticity” and “depth” of indigenous feeling; for their part, their Arab interlocutors self-consciously adopted the language of rights and reason.

The distance between these two positions helps to explain why Arab claims have so often been disappointed. It also explains why their demands have been dismissed as irrational and lacking a genuine basis in popular sentiment.


Resisting the Rhetoric of Disaster

By Daniel Behar

There is perhaps some bitter irony in the fact that the narrative of “artificiality”—first developed by French and British colonial administrators to dismiss Arab demands for self-determination—should have been revived by neoconservatives intent on undoing the postwar settlement and creating a new Middle East.12 But such irony offers little consolation in the face of this narrative’s enduring appeal to commentators and policy makers. Indeed, the latter seem so infatuated with it as to be impervious to the evidence on display in the archives, not least those of the King-Crane Commission. For here can be found not just demands for the “complete political independence” and unification of Syria—like that from the Arabic club of ‘Amman—but also petitions to establish independent Iraqi and Lebanese states.13

One petition, for instance, calls for the creation of an independent Iraqi state, ruled on “civil, constitutional, monarchical” lines and encompassing “the provinces of Diyarbakir, Mosul, Baghdad, Basra, and Dayr al-Zur, within their past known borders.” This shows that Iraq was no mere ill-fated imperial invention without local precedent and meaning. And just as important, this text serves as evidence that indigenous imaginings of the new state could be more expansive still than those of British administrators in London, Baghdad, and Delhi, since the proposed state extended into parts of what are now Turkey and Syria.14

Another petition, from the villagers of the Kura, delegated the Lebanese representatives to the peace conference “to demand on our behalf … the complete administrative and political independence of Mount Lebanon within its geographical and historical boundaries.” Like its Iraqi counterpart, this petition made irredentist demands, insisting that the commission restore the fertile Biqa‘ valley, which fell outside the borders of Ottoman Mount Lebanon, to the new Lebanese state.15 But it also shows a complex understanding of global power and the workings of the new international system born in Paris.

This understanding of world order can be seen in the petition’s appeal to the “peace conference,” the “League of Nations,” and the “international commission sent to these lands to determine the truth” of the matter, so as to grant Lebanon the same status “as all [other] independent countries” the world over. Tellingly, not one of these three petitions addressed—or even mentioned—Wilson himself. They depicted, instead, an international system built on norms, ideals, and institutions, not on charismatic appeal and resonant rhetoric.

One can sometimes gain the impression, when reading work on the King-Crane Commission, that the majority view is the only legitimate one: that demands for a Syrian state were organic and authentic, while those for Lebanese independence were somehow the product of false consciousness. But these petitions, I suggest, tell a different story. Taken together, they provide a clear sense of the range of national visions alive in the Middle East a century ago.

All three give us a glimpse of another future, for their visions of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq were not those that came to pass. And all three speak not of artificiality or derivation but of a deep indigenous attachment to national self-determination and independence. It is time that we listened more intently.


This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nuchoicon

  1. James Barr, A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914–1948 (Norton, 2013).
  2. Elie Kedourie, Nationalism, 4th ed. (Blackwell, 1993), p. 79.
  3. Kedourie, ibid.; David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, 20th anniversary ed. (Henry Holt, 2009), p. 9.
  4. Charles K. Crane and Henry Churchill King, “Report of the American Section of the International Commission on Mandates in Turkey,” August 28, 1919, US Department of State Office of the Historian.
  5. Charles K. Crane and Henry Churchill King, “Report of American Section of Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey,” August 28, 1919, World War I Document Archive.
  6. League of Nations, “Mandate for Palestine” (His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1922), available here.
  7. Elizabeth F. Thompson, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of Its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020).
  8. Andrew Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative: The King-Crane Commission of 1919 (Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 2.
  9. James Gelvin, “The Ironic Legacy of the King-Crane Commission,” in The Middle East and the United States History, Politics, and Ideologies, edited by David W. Lesch and Mark L. Haas (Taylor & Francis, 2018), p. 16.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Michael Reimer, “The King-Crane Commission at the Juncture of Politics and Historiography,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (2006).
  12. On this point, see Sara Pursley’s luminous essay, “‘Lines Drawn on an Empty Map’: Iraq’s Borders and the Legend of the Artificial State (Part 1),Jadaliyya, June 2, 2015.
  13. al-Nadi al-Arabi, “Al-Arabi Club and the American Delegation,” 1919, King-Crane Commission Digital Collection, Oberlin College Archives (accessed January 21, 2021).
  14. Petition from Iraq, 1919: Iraqi Demands from the International Conference,” King-Crane Commission Digital Collection, Oberlin College Archives (accessed January 21, 2021).
  15. Demands of Christian Villages in Mount Lebanon,” June 18, 1919, King-Crane Commission Digital Collection, Oberlin College Archives (accessed January 21, 2021).
Featured image: The King-Crane Commission (detail) (1919). Photograph via Wikimedia Commons