Before the oil

Sowing the Wind: the seeds of conflict in the Middle East

John Keay <em>John Murray, 506pp, £25</e

If the new American rulers of Baghdad are thinking of emulating General Douglas MacArthur's long years as the US proconsul in Japan, they should read John Keay's impressive account of how western colonialists stoked the region's troubles in the first place. Replace the name of America for that of Britain, and this account of the 1920s in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt often reads as if it were describing events today.

Take Iraq. Then as now, the occupiers' policies zigzagged amid bureaucratic infighting and confusion. Then as now, the aims of imperial strategists were couched in the well-meaning language of liberation, democracy, civilisation and encouraging self-rule. "If we bring it off we shall make quite a new thing which will serve as an example," wrote Gertrude Bell in a letter to a friend, as she schemed over how to install the Hashemite Prince Faisal as ruler of the newly created Iraq.

These days, President George Bush also likes to say that America will create in Iraq "an example" of democracy for the region. It remains to be seen whether the almost daily shots fired on American forces will turn into a general uprising against the occupiers of the kind that confronted Britain and France in Egypt in 1919, in Iraq and Syria in 1920, in Syria in 1925 and in Palestine from 1936 to 1939.

It was in Iraq that Britain pioneered the use of air power as a cheap way of holding down restive tribesmen. Long before Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1988, Churchill wondered whether Britain should use "asphyxiating bombs of some kind" against them. During the pro-Nazi coup in Baghdad led by Rashid Ali in 1941, Baghdad was the first city to sustain aerial bombardment, as British forces in the Habbaniya airbase struck at enemy forces in the city. After a relief force had advanced from Transjordan to defeat the plotters, Keay notes how "the ungarrisoned city erupted in an orgy of looting and killing". US forces should have known the same would happen in Baghdad when Saddam's regime crumbled in April.

Keay's book is the story of how the last generation of European empire-builders was destined to clash with the first generation of Arab and Persian nationalists. This unhappy union produced today's Middle East. The Americans have, in many ways, taken over the mantle of the old European colonialists, and with it the resentment of Arabs and Muslims. Sowing the Wind is a warning from history that the Americans (and the British), unless they are careful, may yet reap a terrible whirlwind.

Keay reminds us, however, that America was not always the demon denounced these days by imams, mullahs and sheikhs across the Muslim world. Indeed, in 1919 the anti-British mobs in Cairo shouted out "Long live Wilson", hailing the American president who had advocated independence for all "nationalities" of the Ottoman empire after its defeat in the First World War. Arabs, moreover, had made clear that if anyone should be given the League of Nations mandate for Syria, it should be the United States, not Britain or France.

London and Paris paid lip-service to Wilson's democratic principles. But in practice they carved up the carcass of the Ottoman empire among themselves, bargaining over bits of territory with little regard for their people, imposing chosen rulers, promoting favoured minorities and putting down repeated insurrections. Above all, it was under British rule that Zionism took root in Palestine, and developed enough strength to resist the subsequent wars and upheavals.

Perhaps surprisingly, oil became the central strategic prize in the Middle East relatively late; European intervention in the region at first revolved around control of the Suez Canal. In the early days of the canal, oil flowed in the opposite direction - crude oil from the Russian oil fields was carried through to Asia. It was only later that the tankers began to steam from the Gulf to Europe.

Much of the material in Sowing the Wind is familiar from previous books. Nevertheless, this is an excellent synthesis of the vast body of work on how the west planted the seeds of the Middle East's conflicts. Keay excels at explaining the broader political context of events - the connection between the coup against Muhammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953 and the attempt to topple Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, or the superpower reverberations between the Suez crisis and Hungarian uprising in 1956.

The main weakness of the book is that it is very much a ruler's view of history. The subject peoples in the Middle East form the backdrop, and are given a few walk-on parts, in a play about the dilemmas and delusions of western high commissioners, generals and spies. Keay all but ignores the internal dynamics in the Middle East - such as the development of the Muslim Brotherhood, the foundation for many of today's Islamist groups, and the reason why most regimes in the Arab world are so repressive. The line that he draws between the book's start and end - between the first stirrings of Arab rebelliousness in the Dinshawi incident in Egypt in 1906 and Osama Bin Laden's attacks on America in 2001 - is much too direct.

The closest he comes to explaining Arab identity is the following learned assessment from the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, which finds that every Arabic word has five meanings: "1, the original meaning; 2, the opposite of the original meaning; 3, something poetical and nothing to do with the first two; 4, something connected with a camel; and 5, something too obscene to be translated." Keay says this digression is "surely Orientalist calumny". But he cannot resist including it.

Anton La Guardia is diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph and the author of Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians (John Murray)