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Wishful Thinking

The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945–1951: Arab Nationalism, The United States, and Postwar Imperialism

by William Roger Louis
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 803 pp., $55.00

This is an important and well-written scholarly work, based mainly on official and unofficial archival material, and covering the evolution of British policy toward Britain’s Middle Eastern possessions and their neighbors during the six years following the end of the Second World War. It is a big book—more than 800 octavo pages long, including the index—and it provides much more detail about its subject than has been available up to now in published form. One of the main themes—which Professor Louis handles sensitively and illuminatingly—is the constant interaction of British and American policy making in relation to Greece, Turkey, Iran, and Palestine, and—to a somewhat lesser extent—in the other countries of the region, during the period.

Professor Louis is the author of a number of books on British (and other European) imperial and colonial history. A.J.P. Taylor has called him “the foremost historian of the British Empire and Commonwealth in his generation.” Alan Bullock has called him “the leading historian of the final phase of the British Empire.” Both comments are deserved, but the second—elicited by the book here under review—is particularly significant. Alan Bullock is, of course, Ernest Bevin’s biographer, and his biography—of which the third volume, dealing with Bevin’s term as foreign secretary, was published last year—is respectful and sympathetic, though not uncritical.* Bevin—as foreign secretary throughout the period—is necessarily the central figure in Professor Louis’s story. Since Bevin’s role remains extremely controversial, it is important to note that Professor Louis’s account of that role appears satisfactory to Bevin’s biographer.

Yet no reader should jump to the conclusion that Professor Louis whitewashes Bevin, or that he necessarily shares Bevin’s anti-Zionist convictions (still less the anti-Semitism often attributed to Bevin, mainly on the basis of exasperated obiter dicta). Professor Louis approaches as near to the blessed condition of impartiality as any historian is likely to do, and so he generally steers clear of value judgments. If he has a fault, it is (in this reviewer’s opinion) a somewhat excessive respect, or appearance of respect, for the British Foreign Office as an institution—even the Foreign Office of the mid-twentieth century.

There were times while I was reading The British Empire in the Middle East, 1949–1951 when I felt I was listening to an account, by a truthful but extremely tactful guest, of a ghastly party, at which absolutely everything had gone wrong.

Because everything did go wrong for the British in the Middle East during this period. And it went wrong, in large part, because Bevin’s Foreign Office (and the Foreign Office’s Bevin) had a remarkable capacity for getting things wrong. Professor Louis documents all that, in a deadpan and deferential sort of way, but more copiously, and therefore more damningly, than anyone has done before. But he doesn’t say he is being damning, and so gives no offense. The present reviewer wishes he could master this particular trick.

Bevin, as foreign secretary, was visionary to the point of quixotism. “My whole aim,” he wrote to Attlee in January 1947, “has been to develop the Middle East as a producing area [in agriculture as well as oil] to help our own economy and take the place of India.”

The trouble with Bevin’s “whole aim” was that it was pure wishful thinking: Britain didn’t possess the resources to develop the Middle East in this way. The idea of developing the Middle East was no more than a consoling dream for British Labour imperialists, of whom Bevin was the most devoted (“I wish I were Lord Palmerston,” he once said). The vision of Britain developing the Middle East was already baseless in 1947, but that didn’t prevent it from still floating around, even two years later. At a conference of British Middle Eastern officials, convened by Bevin in London in July 1949, a participant asked the Treasury representative, Norman Young, how the economic crisis in Britain would affect plans for development in the Middle East. The conference minutes, quoted by Professor Louis, give the Treasury answer:

Mr. Norman Young pointed out that high prices of British goods and the fear of devaluation of the £ sterling was causing Middle East countries to hold off purchasing and to postpone the overdue devaluation of their currency. His Majesty’s Government had no intention of devaluing the pound at the present time…. It was, however, difficult to convince foreigners that we meant what we said.

On that Treasury answer of “no intention of devaluing,” Professor Louis makes what is, for him, an unusually blunt comment:

Two months later, in September 1949, the pound was devalued. The British were attempting to bring about an economic revolution in the Middle East at the same time that they themselves faced perpetual economic crisis.

The imaginary development of the Middle East was accompanied by the deployment of an imaginary Middle Eastern army which would deter the Soviet Union. Bevin, according to Professor Louis, believed that Egyptian nationalism could be harnessed “for use as a positive force to strengthen the British Empire….[and] that Egyptian manpower could be utilized to offset the military power of the Soviet Union if the Eygptians were treated on an equal footing.” As Bevin told his Middle Eastern advisers in January 1948:

The Russians treated all the different races of the Soviet Union, from the Pacific to the Baltic, on exactly the same footing…and the result was that they had at their disposal one vast and homogenous force. We should do the same. We must exploit the manpower resources of the Middle East by means of joint defence boards set up under treaties between HMG and each of the states concerned…. Thus we should have one great Middle Eastern Army. This was the more necessary now that we could no longer count on India as a manpower reserve.

Bevin tried to realize his dream of a series of “treaties between HMG and each of the states concerned.” Professor Louis relates the fate of the most ambitious venture of that kind: the Treaty of Portsmouth, concluded in 1948 between Britain and Iraq:

When the terms of the treaty were published, the world at large learned that the new arrangements provided for the “sharing” of the two air bases, a Joint Defence Board, British rights of transit, and general British assistance. The circumstances of publicity for this new era of British imperialism, or perhaps the end of it so far as Iraq was concerned, were inauspicious. The Foreign Secretary had been so pleased with the results of the Iraqi visit to England that he and the Minister of Defence invited the delegation to be guests of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth—hence the name of the treaty. After a luncheon that hardly conformed with the austerity of postwar Britain—not to mention the circumstances of famine in Iraq—the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed aboard Nelson’s Victory on the 15th of January 1948. With phrases that resounded of “principles of liberty and social justice,” Bevin concluded with a remark about the weather: “The sun is shining upon us, which I think is a good augury, an augury that we have done right.”

…The speed with which [Bevin] concluded the treaty aroused explosive suspicion in Baghdad. Within three days a student strike led to general rioting. The extreme nationalists on both the right and left protested against the government for caving in to British imperialism…. The nationalists who wished to scrutinize the precise meaning of the terms had to read them in English, not Arabic. When journalists in Baghdad asked for a translation, they learned to their astonishment that none existed. The leaders of the opposition parties next revealed that they had not been consulted. Neglect developed into insult—at a time when economic distress, including bread shortages, contributed to internal unrest. The delegates in London remained so far out of touch with these developments that they dallied in London to celebrate the conclusion of the historic treaty. Ernest Bevin and Saleh Jabr [then prime minister of Iraq] might have noticed that the sun was shining in England, but in Iraq severe thunder-clouds were gathering. A violent political storm burst upon the exposed Regent. He wobbled, then collapsed. Faced with intense nationalist protest and consequent “hysteria” of his family (according to British reports), he issued a statement on the 21st of January that he would not ratify a treaty that did not fulfill the “national aspirations” of the Iraqi people. His proclamation was in fact a repudiation. Within a week after Portsmouth, Bevin’s Iraqi policy lay in shambles.

The regent (Abdul Ilah) who found himself obliged to scrap the Treaty of Portsmouth was one of Britain’s most devoted friends in the Middle East: a predilection for which he paid with his life, ten years after the abortive Treaty of Portsmouth. It seems probable that it was the prompt abrogation of the treaty that bought him those ten years.

On top of the imaginary development program and the imaginary Middle Eastern army, the teeming brain of the foreign secretary piled an imaginary reform program. The scheme was that the “moderate nationalists,” Britain’s “friends” in the region, would institute a program of agrarian and other social reforms that would endear them to the masses and frustrate the ambitions of the “extreme nationalists,” Britain’s enemies.

The only trouble with that one was that the very people who were doing best out of the unreformed conditions of affairs, and who therefore stood most to lose by reforms, were Britain’s “friends,” the designated architects of the reforms in question. To cast Nuri Pasha, long Britain’s closest friend in Iraq, in the role of a reformer was like entrusting the collection plate to the Thief of Baghdad. Here Professor Louis, as he often does elsewhere, puts what he calls Britain’s “dilemma” into decorous but implicitly devastating language: “On the one hand the British favoured reforms; on the other they wished to retain the friendship of those ruling Iraq.”

So the reforms remained where they began: in the foreign secretary’s imagination.

What might be called the visionary aspect of Britain’s foreign policy during this period was the special sphere of the foreign secretary himself. The visions of development and reform (even of Soviet precedent) helped to reconcile, in the foreign secretary’s mind, socialist ideology with the preservation, as far as practicable, of imperial positions. In practice, as distinct from imagination, Bevin in the Middle East tried to continue the policy that had grown up between the wars; essentially the development of “indirect rule,” which meant keeping as much power as possible in British hands, while abandoning responsibility for the use either of the power ostensibly handed over or of the power quietly retained.

Indirect rule could be made to sound more “progressive” than the old direct rule, but it was in fact worse, because intrinsically irresponsible. (The system resembled, in many respects, American indirect rule in various Latin American countries today.)

It is not probable that senior professionals in the Foreign Office shared Bevin’s dreams. But they respectfully refrained from disturbing his dreams, because those dreams helped him to go along, in practice, with established Foreign Office policy, which was, in essence, to hold on to as much as possible for as long as possible. Not only to go along with the policy, but to put it across. The Foreign Office valued Bevin’s influence in the Cabinet; and his working-class style was a useful characteristic in a spokesman for an upper-class institution facing the alarmingly undeferential conditions of the immediate postwar period in Britain.

The specialists, in the middle ranks at least, must sometimes have had trouble in keeping straight faces while listening to their “master” holding forth about his version of the Middle East. We have seen how Bevin, in July 1949, addressed his Middle Eastern officials about enlisting Egyptian nationalism, and an Egyptian army, on Britain’s side. Two years before this effusion, the head of the Egyptian Department of the Foreign Office, Daniel Lascelles, had been consulted by a senior colleague about what—in a particular situation which the colleague outlined—was “likely to be the future orientation of Egypt’s foreign policy.” The head of the Egyptian Department wrote in reply: “Anti-British—in this and all other circumstances!”

Two years later, that message still hadn’t reached the foreign secretary. The advice that did reach him didn’t do him much good either. Bevin’s policy on Palestine was not a “personal” whim, or set of whims, but formed by the best professional advice available to him. The dominant characteristic of that advice was that Arab opinion, not American opinion, was the principal factor to be taken into account—even though postwar Britain was economically and militarily dependent on America. The Foreign Office was committed to the thesis that the partition of Palestine—recommended before the war by the Peel Commission—would inflame the whole Arab world against Britain, endanger the West’s oil supply and the Suez Canal, alienate the 90 million Muslims of India, and so on. All this had (in the Foreign Office’s view) to be avoided at all costs. It was not simply something to be weighed against other costs, such as the political, economic, and moral costs of attempting to repress a Jewish revolt, using force against Holocaust survivors, while defying a president of the United States, from a position of complete dependence on the United States.

One interesting question here is: to what extent was the Foreign Office during this period encouraged to defy the president, by the US State Department’s acceptance of the Foreign Office analysis. The answer suggested by Professor Louis’s book is: to a considerable extent, certainly, but rather less than has often been supposed. Loy Henderson, director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, had the immediate responsibility for the Palestine question in the State Department. He worked closely with the British, and is regarded by many Zionists as the principal American villain of the piece. Yet Henderson was not always an unconditional foe of partition (and a Jewish state). Louis publishes a remarkable analysis, passed on by Henderson to the British ambassador in Washington on November 26, 1946 (and then passed by the ambassador to Bevin), of probable Arab reactions to partition:

The Arabs would oppose partition with various degrees of tenacity.

(a) Iraq…[Nuri’s] views of the matter were not strong. Both he and the Regent would make a fuss for forms sake but would be unlikely to do more. There would be rioting in Bagdad.

(b) Transjordania. Abdullah would feign opposition and squawk but would in fact be in favour seeing in partition good chances of extending his domains.

(c) Syria. Here the opposition would be genuine, strong and noisily vocal.

(d) Lebanon. Here the Moslems would oppose and the Christians would not care.

(e) Saudi Arabia. Ibn Saud and his people would be stirred partly because of native fanaticisms and partly because they would at once perceive in partition an accretion of strength of the Hashimites. But in the face of the Anglo-American united front Ibn Saud’s resistance would not be sustained.

(f) Egypt. The Egyptians would be noisy but the noise would be meaningless. There might be demonstrating and anti-Semitic riots in Cairo and Alexandria but they would not last long.

That is a much cooler, and more realistic, opinion than that prevailing at the top of the British Foreign Office at the time (though some British specialists on the middle and lower levels agreed with Henderson’s analysis). Yet Henderson, when he found that the British were determined to reject partition, rallied to their point of view. Probably he did so from the sense of a need to support the British generally in the Middle East (for fear of leaving a “vacuum” and bringing the Russians in) whatever might be the merits of their specific position in Palestine. By 1948, we find Henderson feeding a souped-up version of the British theory to George Kennan, who swallowed it whole, including the notion that American support for partition would be followed by “Arab cancellation of [American] base rights, commercial concessions and pipeline construction.”

Henderson’s first guess was a lot better than his second, especially regarding the most important of America’s Arab “partners.” In December 1948, when the state of Israel’s survival was assured, J. Rives Childs, the American representative in Saudi Arabia, reported Ibn Saud’s considered reaction: “The King has not permitted his feelings toward the United States Government to interfere with his friendly relations with the Arabian American Oil Company.”

Childs had never supposed that the king would act in any other way. Romantic and apocalyptic views of the reactions of Arab potentates were generally (though not invariably) the prerogative of Western policy makers at a higher level.

Anyone who shows himself unimpressed by the degree of competence of top policy makers, especially the British ones, at this time, is liable to hear a murmur of “hindsight.” Yet, as distinct from some of the specialists at lower levels, the policy makers of the period seem to have been themselves deficient, not merely in foresight—a quality required of them professionally—and in plain straight sight, but even in realistic hindsight about what had already happened to them. Here is Michael Wright, assistant under-secretary at the Foreign Office, as he contemplates, on June 15, 1948, the bright side of the situation in Palestine, after the collapse of Britain’s policy, and the emergence of the Jewish state:

The existence of a Jewish State would be a source of unity among the Arabs…. It is virtually certain that the Arab countries will seek our advice at some stage.

In fact, Arab opinion at this time (and after) held Britain to blame for what they called Al-Naqba, “the disaster,” and Arab leaders now regarded British advice, and British offers of help, as dangerously compromising. At the end of 1948, when Israeli troops had crossed the Egyptian border into Sinai, Ernest Bevin offered help to Egypt under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of Friendship of 1936. Rather than incur the odium of invoking the “Treaty of Friendship,” Cairo preferred to negotiate an armistice directly with Israel. The British were worse news at that point, in the most important Arab capital, than the Israelis were. This was the measure of the degree of success attained by the Foreign Office’s dogged pursuit of “Arab good will” during the previous ten years.

Still, they thought at the Foreign Office that all might yet be well. Professor Louis finds that the “discursive ideas” of Bernard Burrows, head of the Eastern Department, were “representative” of Foreign Office thinking in the period immediately after the birth of the state of Israel. It had long been a commonplace of Foreign Office thinking that the Jewish state would be likely to go communist (all those Russian Jews and so on). But Burrows’s analytical mind saw how this would turn to Britain’s advantage: “A Jewish state would be a spear-head of communism.” However, “even if the Jewish state was strongly subject to communist influence this would have its good side since the Arabs would automatically dislike communism because it is associated with the Jews.”

In such trains of thought, at such a time, Professor Louis finds “a certain element of self-deception or wishful thinking.”

As usual, Professor Louis does not overstate. All the same, even he is shocked out of his usual equanimity by the condition which senior officials had attained, in relation to Egypt, by 1951. He refers to “something close to intellectual paralysis in the Foreign Office.” The paralysis was followed, within five years, by an outburst of manic activity. But Eden and Suez are beyond the span of this book.

There is a far greater wealth of information in The British Empire in the Middle East than can be indicated even in a fairly long review. But the information as a whole suggests a glut of apparent complacency, and a dearth of common sense, in British policy making in the period and area covered. Perhaps that was inevitable. Having an empire to play with had been fun, and it was hard to give up. Much of the nonsense in the Middle Eastern files of the Foreign Office at this time may be attributed to withdrawal symptoms after the Labour government’s decision to leave India (effective 1947). From underneath Bevin’s dottily grandiose projects, and from underneath the apparently cool, but distinctly peculiar, cerebrations of the Foreign Office mandarins, as well as the Chiefs of Staff, you can faintly hear a stifled cry of pain: “Oh God! Not the Middle East too!”

What may sound like insufferable complacency may in fact be anguish. Contrary to a widespread belief, the British, too, are human.

  1. *

    Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary, 1945–1951 (Norton, 1984).

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