The speech given by Winston Churchill in March 1946 at the Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, is remembered mostly by his coining of the term “Iron Curtain”. However, he also referred for the first time to the “special relationship” binding the United States and the British Commonwealth. Churchill spoke about military cooperation, as well as the need for “growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society.”
James Barr’s latest book, Lords of the Desert, puts into question this “special relationship”, providing the reader with the evidence to argue that it is just a myth, at least when it comes to the Middle East. Barr, a visiting fellow at King’s College, London, revisits the period between 1942 and 1967 by paying attention to the competition between the US and Britain to dominate the Middle East. The author has already proven himself to be proficient in the dissection of Western rivalries over this very same region with his previous work A Line in the Sand, which dealt effectively with the often bitter cohabitation between France and Britain in the Middle East during the interwar period.
Lords of the Desert portrays British political leaders, especially the Conservatives but also those in the Labour Party, as too often unable to see how the Second World War had put an end to Britain’s superpower status. The paradigmatic example of this was Winston Churchill, who was returned to 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister in 1951. Convinced that Britain should keep its military base in Suez and reluctant to accept that the world had changed, Churchill expected to be treated on an equal footing when he visited US President Harry S Truman in 1952. An aide of the British premier, however, came to realise that his country was seen as “playing second fiddle” in Washington.
Britain was suffering from imperial overstretch, in part due to domestic economic problems. Meanwhile, the booming United States, looking to secure oil sources and counter Soviet influence, was expanding its own influence in the Middle East very rapidly. James Barr explains that it was not until 1953 that Foster Dulles became the first US Secretary of State to visit the region. Nonetheless, America had come to stay. Evidence of this is that, in the same year, the democratically-elected President of Iran Mohammad Mossadegh was deposed in a coup coordinated from the US Embassy in Tehran.
Britain’s autonomy vis-a-vis the US in the Middle East was restrained further in the coming years. In 1956, the joint military operation carried out by France, Israel and Britain to regain control of the Suez Channel and topple Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was forced to a halt after initial success. The fact that Washington was preparing a UN Resolution “calling for economic sanctions on Britain and France” was clearly decisive.
Throughout the book, we are presented with several of the reasons why British and American policy priorities in the Middle East often clashed. For US political leaders, factors such as the importance of Jewish voters, the fight against global Communism or the alliance with the Saud family were of paramount importance.
British politicians, on the contrary, relied on their country’s alliance with the Hashemites, long-time rivals of the Saudis. At the same time, Britain paid less attention to the “Communist threat”, while pecuniary concerns were always there. Although London could not afford to keep its imperial project in the Middle East, no prime minister wanted to be remembered as the one who gave away the Empire.
Lords of the Desert concludes with Britain’s abandonment of Aden in 1967 after having been involved in the quagmire of the Northern Yemen Civil War. Neither 1967 nor 1971, when Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates ceased to depend on the United Kingdom, mark the end of British interventionism in the region, though. Both the first and the second Gulf Wars suggest otherwise. However, Britain’s departure from the Gulf did signal the end of an era.
The author pays more attention to Britain’s diminishing role in the region than to the growing importance of the US. However, the book does not look unbalanced as a result of this emphasis. An element that would have improved Barr’s analysis is a description of how and to what extent the constituencies in the US and Britain had an influence on their policies. The only mention in this respect is the importance of Jewish voters in the United States vis-à-vis policy towards Israel.
This fact notwithstanding, Lords of the Desert has the potential to become a reference text. All in all, James Barr has written a very readable book without compromising the erudition of his work, moving his narrative between different countries in the Middle East almost seamlessly. By putting the focus on the disagreements and mistrust over the Middle East within the so-called “special relationship”, Barr gives food for thought to those scholars who analyse the limits of alliances between apparently like-minded states.