Countries act according to enlightened self interest, right? Not necessarily, according to A Line in the Sand, the fascinating book by James Barr. Barr tells us exactly how Britain and France carved up the Middle East in the period between World War I until just after World War II. It’s all revealed in excruciating detail in recently declassified British and French documents.
Like a cut-throat game of global monopoly, Britain and France each tried to gain control of as much of the Middle East as possible. However, since Woodrow Wilson had made it politically incorrect to admit what they were doing, both of them righteously maintained that they were only trying to help the local populations prepare themselves for self-government. But even more than achieving their own goals, each was hell-bent on preventing the success of the other.
The British desire to control Iraq was purely pragmatic – they wanted the oil. The French were also interested in profit – their economy was in bad shape after World War I – but they also felt that France had a historic claim to the territory since a Frenchman was briefly King of Jerusalem before being defeated by Saladin in 1187. When the French general Gouraud took Damascus in 1920 (from an Arab government favored by the British) he headed straight for Saladin’s tomb and announced, “Saladin, we’re back!”.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.