Lords Of The Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East
By James Barr
Basic Books; hardcover, 464 pages; $35.00
The United States has been involved in battles in the Middle East for decades, from Desert Storm to the second Iraq war that began in 2003, to the current battle with ISIS.
America has always played a major role, but before the US came to dominate, Great Britain largely was in control.
In the new book, Lords Of The Desert, historian James Barr tells the long-overlooked story of the Anglo-American rivalry that began to develop in the mid-twentieth century. The assumption has been that Arab nationalism brought about the end of British designs in the Middle East when Gamal Adbel Nasser and other Arab leaders led popular uprisings against colonial rule that forced the overstretched British to withdraw.
Barr argues that the British exit from the Mideast was actually a culmination of a decades-long power struggle with the United States. He draws on newly declassified archives ad other previously unpublished sources to trace the British/US rivalry in the Middle East from the early 1940s, when the American oil company Aramco outbid the British to win exclusive drilling rights in Saudi Arabia, to the British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971.
The United States and Britain were allies, but they had different views on the Mideast, and the U.S. quickly found themselves at odds with the British over just about every question, from who should control Iranian oil to whether to partition Palestine and make way for a Jewish state.
Despite how it may seem, these tensions began rising before the end of World War II, and Barr vividly chronicles the British government’s rising frustration as their American counterparts refused to pursue the same policy objectives in Egypt, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia in the years that followed. One example of where the countries battled, which was revealed by recently declassified U.S. State Department files on Iran, came in 1951, when the U.S. foiled a British attempt to split the country by encouraging the powerful southern tribes to declare their independence.
The cast of characters in this drama includes American presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Saudi King Ibn Saud, and Winston Churchill, who once professed a willingness to kiss Uncle Sam on both cheeks, “but not all four.” There is also a look at murkier, lesser-known figures like the CIA officer Kim Roosevelt and the British oil exporter Wilfred Thesiger.
In a part titled “The Gift of a Gun,” Barr writes of a time right after Eisenhower took office, “In the spring of 1953, Foster Dulles became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the Middle East – a move that signaled a new era of more active American involvement in the region. On May 11, he arrived in Cairo and met the man the CIA had helped to power the previous year, Egypt’s prime minister Mohammed Neguib.
“Talks between the Egyptian and British governments over the Suez base had started late in the previous month, and Dulles was under the impression that they were on the verge of delivering an agreement that would fix dates for the withdrawal of British forces and, further in the future, for the handover of the base to Egypt. The secretary – who, as ever, had the fight against Communism foremost in his mind – was keen to start discussing the regional defensive pact, which would give the British government the political cover that it needed before it announced that it was abandoning its biggest foreign base. The Middle East Defense Organization he envisaged, in which the United Stated and Britain would play major roles, would organize the states of the region to confront the Soviet threat. But (Mohammed) Neguib had bad news.
“Not only had the talks with the British broken down, the prime minister explained, but the Egyptian people, who had been let down by the British on so many previous occasions, would never accept a defense organization of the type that Dulles sought because it would involve the British. ‘Free us from the British occupation first,’ Neguib told the secretary of state, ‘and then we can negotiate in good faith.’ The prime minister, as Dulles knew, was ‘merely a front’ but a day later the man who really ran the country, Gamal Abdel Nasser, made exactly the same point. The pact that Dulles advocated was seen by the Egyptian people as ‘a perpetuation of occupation.’ Nasser explained quietly. ‘British influence must entirely disappear.’
“Two days eye-to-eye with the leaders of the new regime in Cairo brought home to Dulles the ferocity of their hatred of the British and made him appreciate – in a way that no telegram from the embassy had previously done – how close the situation was to boiling point. The fedayeen’s attacks on the British base had already resumed following the collapse of the talks, the British were hinting that they might have to reoccupy Cairo and Alexandria, the Egyptians were moving troops to oppose any British attempt to do so, and Neguib had warned him that further Black Saturday-type outrages could not be ruled out. It seemed entirely possible that a new Middle Eastern war might suddenly break out…
“Dulles’s abandonment of the Middle East Defense Organization did not, however, mean that the secretary of state had washed his hands of the long-running Anglo-Egyptian dispute over the Suez base. Although Suez would not serve as the nucleus for the new Northern Tier arrangement, Dulles believed that he could not afford to leave the problem unresolved. As it had become a cause celebre across the Arab world, he felt certain that, if it were allowed to fester, the Soviet Union was certain to exploit it. Until recently, United States policy had been to leave the defense of the Middle East to Britain. But the secretary had found ‘an intense distrust and dislike for the British’ on his trip, and convinced that the British troops still based in the area had become ‘more a factor of instability…than stability,’ he now believed the time had come for the United States to take charge of the situation and to ease the British out.’
“In British eyes, Dulles’s visit to Egypt has been defined by an extraordinary gaffe. Although the secretary of state knew that the regime was directing the attacks by the fedayeen, at the beginning of his May 11 meeting with Neguib, he had presented the Egyptian prime minister with a pistol as a gift from Ike. The moment, which the Americans sheepishly said was ‘intended to be in private,’ was captured by a photographer, and the image of Neguib holding the weapon was reproduced around the world. Afterward, Churchill – in charge of the Foreign Office during Eden’s convalescence – hauled in the American ambassador. It was ‘slightly irritating,’ he told him, ‘that Dulles in his globe-trotting progress should be taking pains at every point to sympathise with those who were trying to kick out or do down the British.’
“Dulles ignored Churchill’s complaint. With Ike’s approval, the secretary of state drafted a new proposal for his ambassador in Cairo to give to Neguib so that Neguib could send it back to Washington, aware that it would elicit a favorable response. On July 15, 1953, Eisenhower replied, offering economic aid and help to strengthen the country’s armed forces if Egypt could reach a deal with Britain over the base. In hinting at what would follow if the Egyptians played ball, the president’s gift of the pistol to Neguib was quite deliberate.”
Lords of the Desert, incredibly researched and vividly told, is one of the best books you will read on the United States’ involvement in the Middle East.