Exploring the ‘What If?’ in Middle East Peace
Review of the London Middle East Institute and CBRL Workshop on the King-Crane Commission of 1919
The Middle East’s cartography has been one of the driving forces behind many contemporary sectarian, ethnic, and political conflicts—discord that can sometimes push definitions of Levantine state boundaries into question. The nexus between violence and borders has drawn great attention from experts looking to key moments in Middle Eastern history where national determination, peace opportunities, and imperial influences vied to determine the region’s cartographic fate. It is popular for historians and experts to reference Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, the 1917 Balfour Agreement, and the ill-fated 1915-1916 McMahon-Hussein Correspondence as chief examples in which national will yielded to imperial interests. The aftermath of the First World War produced a series of agreements that reflected the nuanced political gamesmanship of the time: entertain and engage national determination requests only in order to prolong imperial influence in the new, postwar order. Historiography has focused on cases that have reinforced this dynamic, portraying the Middle East’s trajectory as almost an ‘inevitable’ fate driven by imperialist disposition. Yet, what if there was a counterfactual in Middle East history—a divergent case that could have determined very different Middle East?
The King-Crane Commission Comes to Light
In a small, crowded London lecture room, this ‘alternative history’ to Middle East politics was the forefront of debate and discussion. Traveling from across the world to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, historians, experts, and specialists in Levantine peace and conflict studies convened for a workshop program hosted by the London Middle East Institute (LMEI) and Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL). The program centered around the King-Crane Commission of 1919, one of the most provoking ‘What if’s?’ of 20th-century Levantine history. Four experts delivered presentations, followed by discussion: Dr. Lori Allen, a specialist in historical anthropology of Palestinian international law; Dr. Lauren Banko, a researcher on Ottoman mandate states; James Barr, a historian on great power rivalries in the Middle East, and author of America’s Forgotten Middle East Initative: The King-Crane Commission of 1919, Dr. Andrew Patrick. Through analysis and discussion, the event itself revealed the many, lingering inquiries into the King-Crane’s findings, disappearance, and enduring legacy.
The King-Crane Commission was conceived in the era of US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, anchored in the postwar concept of self-determination. The US assembled an inter-allied commission with Italy, France, and Great Britain, to investigate and assess national aspirations in Greater Syria (the equivalent of modern-day Palestine, Syria, southern Turkey, and Lebanon). However, just months before the Commission’s June 1919 planned implementation, European powers backed out of the plan in fear of contradicting wartime pacts such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, in fear the Commission would cast a shadow over Anglo-Franco hegemony in the region. The US therefore was tasked to charter this Levantine project alone, responsible for elucidating Syrian opinion, investigating the political circumstances, and recommending official territorial boundaries and political settlements to statesmen at Versailles. The King-Crane commission served as one of the US’ most important interactive forays with the 20th century Arab world, and the American delegation was received positively by the local population. Arab residents perceived the Commission as a prime opportunity for self-determination and protest against imperialism, lobbying for a constitutional monarchy, equal citizenship among sectarian and ethnic identities, and an un-divided Greater Syria through testimonies, petitions, and newspaper articles. Dr. Andrew Patrick asserts that the report is comprised wholly of accurate data, reflected in a “bottom-up” approach to reading testimonies and petitions, where nationalist, liberalist elites would successfully convince constituents and conservative tribal leaders of self-determination. When the Commission concluded in August 1919, the official report objected both to partitioning Greater Syria into European-controlled mandates and the establishment of Zionist state in Palestine, instead proposing a semi-autonomous Lebanese state and US-monitored Syria, both ruled by constitutional monarchy.
The King-Crane Commission of 1919 is believed to be the ideal territorial settlement that never was—the report was rare among postwar settlements in its honest recognition of the wishes and nationalist ambitions of Greater Syria’s population, yet, was never published, released, nor implemented after the Commission’s completion. Though final report was delivered to the White House in September 1919, its findings were likely never read; the president fell ill with a stroke in early October and the dynamic at the Versailles Conference had drastically changed, resulting in the British mandate of Palestine in June 1920. Despite its lack of attention in policy analyses and academia, the King-Crane Commission of 1919 is a significant case study in an alternative trajectory of the Middle East, and one that deserves further exploration. Discussions such as the joint LMEI-CBRL workshop program highlight the pivotal questions about the commission’s intentions, silencing, and legacy, left unanswered in academic and policy circles.