Who's Sorry Now? Britain, the United States, and the Politics of the Middle East Status Quo, 1945-1967

By Mawby, Spencer | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Who's Sorry Now? Britain, the United States, and the Politics of the Middle East Status Quo, 1945-1967


Mawby, Spencer, The Middle East Journal


Who's Sorry Now? Britain, the United States, and the Politics of the Middle East Status Quo, 1945-1967 Caught in the Middle East: US Policy toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1945-1961, by Peter L. Hahn. Chapel Hill, NC and London, UK: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. xiii + 293 pages. Notes to p. 366. Bibl. to p. 387. Index to p. 398. $45 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Britain, Nasser and the Balance of Power in the Middle East: From the Egyptian Revolution to the Six Day War 1952-1967, by Robert McNamara. London, UK and New York: Frank Cass, 2004. xvii+ 292 pages. Bibl. to p. 303. Index to p. 308. $135.

Strategy and Politics in the Middle East 1954-1960: Defending the Northern Tier, by Michael J. Cohen. London, UK and New York: Frank Cass, 2005. xiii + 219 pages. Notes to p. 261. Bibl. to p. 268. Index to p. 272. $65.

The Baghdad Pact: Anglo-American Defence Policies in the Middle East 1950-1959, by Behcet Kemal Yesilbursa. London, UK and New York: Frank Cass, 2005. xvi + 222 pages. Appends, to p. 229. Notes to p. 268. Bibl. to p. 279. Index to p. 287. $65.

Britain, the Six-Day War and its Aftermath, by Frank Brenchley. London, UK and New York: LB. Tauris, 2005. xxiv + 128 pages. Appends, to p. 152. Notes to p. 167. Bibl. to p. 175. Index to p. 184. $65.

The task which historians of the West's relationship with the Middle East are most often called on to perform by those interested primarily in the current politics of the region is to identify whose fault all the current trouble might be. Many commentators have embraced this task. Efraim Karsh, for example, has sought to exculpate the Western powers; others, including most recently the journalist Robert Fisk, have traced the source of current problems directly back to past interventions by Britain, France, and the United States, which Fisk describes, with heavy irony, as the Great War for Civilization.1 While it is not entirely clear that this is a question that can be definitively answered, it is worth registering a view on these matters at the outset. Subsequent comments on the latest series of books dealing with the West's role in the Middle East in the first three decades after 1945 can then at least be judged with an awareness of the reviewer's own sympathies.

During the course of the last century, France, Britain, and the United States defined the context in which current Middle East politics is conducted. The Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 divided the Fertile Crescent into two spheres of influence, which solidified into five mandatory states during the post-World War I conferences. Britain and France thus presided over the creation of the modern boundaries of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan and, through the mandate system, authored the political systems that replaced the Ottoman Empire. In Palestine, the British oversaw substantial Jewish immigration without resolving whether their long-term goal was partition or a binational state at independence. Elsewhere, during the interwar period the British remained the predominant actor in Egypt, Aden, and the Gulf. United States oil companies made their entry to the region in pursuit of oil profits and played a significant role in the establishment of the modern state of Saudi Arabia. France governed its mandates with a heavy hand until it was effectively destroyed as a Middle East actor by the defeat of the Vichy regimes in Syria and Lebanon during World War II. By contrast the British repelled the German attempt to destroy their Middle East empire.

During the two post-1945 decades covered by these books the United States and Britain were often rivals and sometimes friends in the Middle East, but little escaped their notice. Their appointed role was largely to police the post-1919 settlement: to prevent territorial revisions and to ensure their allies retained a position of authority. The peculiar nature of the 1918-23 settlement made it inevitable that local actors such as Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir in Egypt, Muhammad Musaddiq in Iran, Khalid al-'Azm in Syria, and Sulayman al-Nabulsi in Jordan, would challenge the status quo. …

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