The Decline of the Anglo-American Middle East 1961-1969, by Tore T. Petersen. Brighton, UK and Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2006. xi +134 pages. Notes to p. 164. Bibl. to p. 176. Index to p. 181. $67.50.
Reviewed by Alan P. Dobson
This book is a detailed account of policy decisions, which led to the British military withdrawal from Aden and the Persian Gulf between 1961 and 1969. The main focus is on British policy and particularly on the Wilson Administrations of 1964-69. The main theme of the account is that the Middle East policy of Harold Wilson's Labour Government was "one-dimensionally ideologically committed to the end of empire" (p. 77).
Although the title suggests a study in Anglo-American relations, there is far more here about Britain than America or AngloAmerican relations. The narrative provides much detail from primary sources about British military entanglements in the Middle East and the various stages of extrication. The story of Aden and of Britain's relations with the various Gulf States is particularly interesting and generally well done, as are the complications with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are interesting insights and perspectives, particularly on US attempts to persuade Britain to stay on in the Persian Gulf by opening up commercial opportunities for it in Saudi Arabia. Yet, there is a noticeable absence of perspective on Britain's relations with Israel even though the Labour Government was generally better disposed to Israel than the Conservative Administration.
While there is much to be learned from this work, some of the main lines of interpretation appear to be on less than secure ground. The author argues that the Wilson Government was "intent all along, on ending Britain's overseas commitments for reasons of ideology; the poor shape of the British economy was just an added inducement to speed up the withdrawal process" (p. 2). However, the hard evidence for this claim is hardly forthcoming. There is a secondary source quotation in support of this on pages 73-74, but that is hardly conclusive, and, in the same place, the author comments: "It is hard to explain the decision to leave the Gulf by anything other than domestic exigencies" (p. 74). It is not clear whether such exigencies refer solely to ideological beliefs or whether they extend to economic problems as well. If the latter, then this would compromise the author's main assertion that the decision to withdraw was driven by ideology rather than by economics. The author might respond by saying that his argument is that ideology was the main driver and economics only a very minor one, but that still leaves the reader wondering about the relative significance of the two. …