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How Winston Churchill Helped Shape the Middle East

By BETH HARPAZ

Winston Churchill is famous for leading Great Britain through World War II with tremendous political skill and fortitude, inspiring the country to remain steadfast as the Nazis overran Europe.

An earlier phase of Churchill’s life is the subject of a new book, Winston S. Churchill and the Shaping of the Middle East, 1919-1922, by Professor Sara Reguer (Brooklyn College). While this chapter of Churchill’s career is less well known than his wartime leadership, his work in the Middle East laid the foundations for politics and events in the region for decades to come, and in ways that still reverberate. 

Churchill was appointed as Great Britain’s secretary of state for war and air in 1919. His primary tasks in that post-World War I period were demobilizing British forces and cutting costs. A large section of the Middle East (including Iraq and Palestine) had recently come under direct British control, so Churchill created a separate department for the region with experts to guide him. He later became secretary of state for the colonies. His Middle East advisers included T.E. Lawrence (popularly known, thanks to the famous movie, as Lawrence of Arabia).

Churchill’s goals for the Middle East included maintaining peace, promoting development, and countering any influence-peddling by the Bolsheviks, who had recently triumphed in Russia. But these goals, writes Ruguer, were all in service of a loftier purpose: “Britain should remain a great world power and her imperial inheritance was an integral part of this position. That this inheritance in the Middle East was brand new made no difference to these imperialists, and it was to be protected against all enemies as strongly as longer held areas.” 

Under Churchill’s direction, a Hashemite prince, Faysal, became king of Iraq, though he later proved an unreliable ally. Faysal’s brother ‘Abdullah became emir of Transjordan (which eventually became the Kingdom of Jordan). Despite rising anti-Zionism in England and pushback from the Arab world, Churchill also defended Britain’s commitment to the Balfour Declaration, which supported establishing a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine. 

To get things done, Reguer says, Churchill “built up an arsenal of reliable data,” then persuaded people in positions of influence to support his plans before seeking approval from high-level decision-makers. His personality was also part of his success: “his open ambition, self-confidence, as well as egocentricity … He behaved like someone important, thereby impressing others that this must be so.” His critics, on the other hand, “feared the impetuous risk taker and despised his brusqueness, impatience and scorn and his disregard for personal sensitivities.” 

But “his most effective tactic,” Reguer says, “was his oral appeals to Parliament.” To those of us who know the man mainly through his fiery World War II speeches, that comes as no surprise.  

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Winston S. Churchill and the Shaping of the Middle East, 1919-1922
Academic Studies Press, 2020

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Sara Reguer (Professor, Judaic Studies) | Profile 1

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Brooklyn College