Modern History and Politics: Curzon and British Imperialism in the Middle East, 1916-1919

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Curzon and British Imperialism in the Middle East, 1916-1919, by John Fisher. London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1999. xvi + 301 pages. Appends. to p. 322. Bibl. to p. 332. Index to p. 342. $64.50.

Reviewed by Jacob Abadi

In this interesting book, Fisher examines the formulation of British foreign policy desiderata in the Middle East during the First World War. Using a wide array of primary sources, he skill-- fully analyzes the attitudes of civil servants and politicians who played a role in formulating British policy toward that region. The author explains how various agencies in the British Government dealt with issues affecting Britain's security interests in the Middle East and thus complicated the decision-making process.

The debate among British officials within the Mesopotamian Administration Committee whether to maintain a military presence in the region or move toward assisting the Arabs of Mesopotamia to achieve self-government is an important issue, but one that is rarely mentioned by historians. The author sheds light on the dissension within the Committee and its consequent failure to formulate a decisive policy toward the region. Against this background, the author analyzes the contribution of Lord Curzon to the formulation of British policy in the Arabian Peninsula. He discusses Curzon's differences with members of the British Cabinet and his wide-ranging failures to convince them of the need to adopt an aggressive policy in the region by advancing rapidly in Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Curzon appears as a loner whose words fell on deaf ears in Whitehall. The author argues that British policy was less resolute in this region due to the fact that officials in London were not always in agreement with their colleagues in the Middle East. Many officials regarded Curzon as an unrealistic statesman who did not seem willing to renounce his conviction that Britain could establish a presence in the region by sheer military force.

Fisher depicts Curzon as a man of principles who refused to yield to the prevailing opinions in British government circles. He fought to intensify Britain's military operations in Mesopotamia in order to secure British control over the vilayet of Mosul. Moreover, Curzon favored an aggressive stand in the Caucasus in an effort to halt the joint Turco-German assaults in that region. Curzon's determination to oust France from this area led him to endorse the argument that the British had become involved in the Middle East primarily in order to promote Arab self-determination. Moreover, his vigilant attitude led him to oppose the growth of Hashemite power in the region, Like-- wise, Curzon opposed the position taken by some of his colleagues that France should be compensated in the Caucasus. …