Wm. Roger Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951: Arab Nationalism, The United States and Post-War Imperialism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

This rich and highly informative book charts the history of the post-war British Labor government’s policies in the Middle East. It is immensely detailed, but so very well written that the reader will easily follow the main tenor of the author’s arguments. Louis, a well-known and prolific historian of the last years of the British Empire, achieves much of his effect by a judicious mixture of quotation (mostly from British and American diplomatic archives) and comment.

The underlying theme is relatively simple: the Labor government’s attempt to preserve British power and influence in a world which World War II had changed beyond recognition. Labor believed this could be achieved by the more “benevolent” and “decent” form of colonialism propounded by Fabian socialists and others. Louis does not sufficiently acknowledge that this new imperialism was bound to be unacceptable to the national independence movements in the Middle East, and thus tends to depict the whole enterprise in terms of “heroic failure,” a campaign fought by “selfless” men against hopeless odds. In the immediate post-war period Britain began to lose its traditional influence in the Middle East, partly to the United States but more importantly to the forces of anti-colonialism in the Arab world. The widespread identification of Britain with the various anciens regimes in the area accelerated this process.

Louis identifies two main preoccupations in Labor’s Middle East policy: the containment of “Communism” and the need to convince Washington that Britain was no longer engaged in old-style colonial exploitation that would exclude the United States. The theme of the imminent danger of Communism and of Soviet “expansion” into Greece, Iran, Egypt and even Palestine was rarely far from the thoughts of the officials, diplomats and politicians whose minutes and correspondence fill the pages of this book.

Louis neglects to note that apart from the Soviet Union’s patent exhaustion and thus its inability to embark upon costly and dangerous ventures in the Middle East in the immediate aftermath of World War II, there is no evidence of sustained Soviet interest in the Middle East before Stalin’s death in 1953. In Iran — the only country under discussion in which a form of Soviet intervention did take place, in 1946, to assist in the creation of autonomous republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan — the account given by the British consul in Tabriz notes why people there may have actually welcomed this intervention.

…the ordinary people of Azerbaijan…are materially somewhat better off than they were seven months ago under direct Persian rule, for the local Democrats are, on the whole, honester.

On a different level it is clear that many British diplomats and civil servants realized, often rather ruefully, that the increasing receptivity of the peoples of the Middle East to “Communism” was largely a reaction to the repressive activities of British-installed regimes in Transjordan, Egypt and especially Iraq.

Britain’s American allies also presented a complicated challenge to policy makers. The US wanted Britain to police the area on the West’s behalf to safeguard transport and communications through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal and access to oil. This “underwriting” of the British Empire, as Louis calls it, was not to involve US military or financial assistance to the region. Louis shows how the Foreign Office encouraged American investment in Saudi oil precisely to consolidate a permanent US commitment to the region. In the same way Louis describes Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s concern in April 1946 that no difficulties should be put in the way of the Americans’ acquiring an interest in Iranian oil: “The greater the American interest in the Iranian oil industry, the greater would be the chances of a sustained American political commitment.”

A leitmotif of this book is Britain’s sense of imperial burden. Partly because Louis is determined to let the contemporary actors speak for themselves, he becomes almost symbiotically involved. He rarely questions or critically analyzes the fundamental assumptions of British policy, or assesses its effects in the Middle East. This is a diplomatic history of Britain’s withdrawal from the Middle East, and the interaction of British and American policies; the “Arab Nationalism” of the title must be understood in the sense of the Anglo-American reaction to this new phenomenon.

The most substantial section of the book is, of course, concerned with Palestine, where the Labor government confronted the most intractable legacy of Britain’s imperial past. In 1946-1947, at a time of profound economic crisis at home, Britain was spending 35 million pounds in Palestine, and could clearly not afford to do so indefinitely. In practical terms, the solutions soon narrowed down to two: a binational state, which Ernest Bevin and others favored, or partition, the option favored by the United States and eventually adopted by the United Nations. Louis’ description of Zionist lobbying of American politicians and of American pressure on the British government is masterly, especially of the way in which the Zionists’ supporters taught their proteges how to master the workings of Congress and the United Nations to their own best advantage. We see how President Truman managed to press Britain into agreeing to the immediate admission of 100,000 Jews to Palestine in spite of the fact that, at least at the beginning, it would have been difficult to find 100,000 Holocaust survivors willing to go there.

Nevertheless, apart from US economic assistance to Israel after 1948, there was no sign of any US willingness to assist in bringing about a peaceful termination of the mandate, and certainly not to enforce partition. The two overriding concerns of US policy were not to alienate the Zionists, and not to commit American troops. Louis shows that American career diplomats en poste in the Middle East feared that US endorsement of unlimited immigration would turn the states of the region into an anti-American bloc. In fact, only the self-interest of local rulers kept this from being a major outcome of the 1948 war.

While there was a certain consensus between Britain and the United States over most aspects of Middle East policy, the issue of Palestine was the principal focus of contention. It emerges from Louis’ account that there were also considerable differences of opinion within the bureaucracies on both sides.

One important question which arises from this wide-ranging and extremely well documented book concerns the ideological stand of the historian and the way in which this affects his or her interpretation of documentary evidence. Louis’s tendency to accept the interpretations of civil servants and politicians as precise descriptions of political realities somewhat diminishes the book’s analytical importance. Its main significance lies in the level of detail and information which it provides, giving vital new insights into the formulation of British policy in the Middle East, and Britain’s relations with the US.

One tiresome criticism needs to be made; although Oxford University Press has allowed Louis to put his footnotes at the bottom of each page, the book has no bibliography, an omission the author can only be urged to make good if future editions are planned. In general this is a thoughtful and challenging book; the author shows his mastery of an enormous range of source material, and his work will continue to stimulate argument for many years to come.

How to cite this article:

Peter Sluglett "Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East," Middle East Report 156 (January/February 1989).

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