Jason Burke

Lines in the sand

James Barr contrasts the bumbling self-importance of British officials with the ignorant over-confidence of their American counterparts

One of the many pleasures offered by Lords of the Desert, which narrates the rivalry between Britain and the United States in the Middle East from the end of the second world war through to 1967, is the quotations that are liberally strewn across its pages. They have been culled from memoirs or official documents unearthed in British or US archives and testify to the research that has gone into this dense but consistently fascinating account.

Some reveal the deep complacency of influential individuals. Ralph Brewster, an American senator who undertook a round- the-world tour in August 1943 to investigate the progress of the war and report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was mistrustful of too much knowledge, telling a colleague:

I don’t think one day is enough to really give you the hang of a country. And if you spend much more than a day or two there, you’re likely to become a prejudiced native… But two days is just about right to make you a real expert.

Others are beautiful examples of the ancient art of the diplomatic put-down. A British official stationed in Tehran described Mohammed Mossadeq — the Iranian prime minister committed to reclaiming his country’s oil revenues, ousted in 1953 in an operation executed jointly by British and US intelligence services — as ‘a sort of Iranian Mahatma Gandhi, but less rational’.

Several illustrate perfectly the mindset of British decision-makers. Naturally, this evolved over the lengthy period that the book covers. But from the end of the second world war, through the final years of the British mandate in Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel, the coming to power of Nasser in Egypt, the Suez crisis, and on to Britain’s retreat from the region at the end of the 1960s, one element is constant: a failure to comprehend quite how far and how fast the balance of power had shifted away from Britain.

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