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Perspective: Jeremy Wilson on pre-Cairo Conference negotiations

Excerpt from Jeremy Wilson’s Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence, 1989.

“At the end of the year [1920], it was decided that Winston Churchill should be put in charge of the Colonial Office and given responsibility for Mesopotamia, coastal Palestine and the inland region known as Trans-Jordan. On January 8 [1921] he invited Lawrence to join him as an adviser of Arab Affairs. Lawrence’s initial response was not enthusiastic. After his failure at the Peace Conference he had resolved to seek no further role in Arabian diplomacy or administration, and his present thoughts were mainly of writing and printing. Only a week before, he had written: ‘I’ve long given up politics.’ However, he eventually accepted the post, seeing it as an opportunity to salve Britain’s reputation in part, at least, of the Arab world. At first he tried to make a condition that Britain’s wartime promises to the Arabs would be honoured. The condition was refused, and he later wrote that he had only accepted because ‘Winston … offered me direct access to himself on every point, and a free hand, subject to his discretion. This was better than any condition, because I wanted the best settlement of the Middle East possible, apart from all the promises and treaties.’

Churchill knew little about the Arab world, yet his greatest need was to reduce the cost of the colonial administration in Mesopotamia. Lawrence had assured him that he could save millions by turning the country into an autonomous Arab kingdom under Feisal and, as the latter was now in London, Churchill asked Lawrence to discuss the scheme with him privately….

Some years afterward, Lawrence told his biographer Liddell Hart that everything had been staged before the meetings began. He had settled not only the questions to be considered, but the decisions reached: ‘Talk of leaving things to the man on the spot — we left nothing.’

As long as Churchill continued to back him, Lawrence could not fail. If he had worries on this count, they were groundless. Churchill’s performance was everything that he could have hoped for, and item after item on the Cairo Conference agenda was settled by unanimous agreement.”