From Sahib to Satan

Keith Kyle

  • The British Empire in the Middle East 1945-1951 by William Roger Louis
    Oxford, 818 pp, £45.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 19 822489 3

‘It was generally agreed that the British had played a lamentable if not altogether duplicitous role in the Palestine situation and that their last-minute approaches and indications of a change of heart could have no effect on our policy.’ This is the only point of agreement that is recorded in the minute of an otherwise extremely disputatious encounter between President Truman and his closest advisers on the eve of the expiry of the British mandate in Palestine and the proclamation of the state of Israel. Besides demonstrating that General Al Haig was not without precedent in terming his British opposite number ‘a duplicitous bastard’, it betrays the degree of exasperation that frequently prevailed in the relations between a rapidly declining British Empire and a slowly emerging American superpower. Yet this was the period during which Truman and Attlee, Marshall and Bevin were laying the foundations of a lasting Western alliance system. The story of the British Empire in the Middle East at this time is the story of Ernest Bevin’s foreign policy with the successes left out; it is also in part Truman’s Presidency without the greatness. Yet the worst that was anticipated at the time – that Russia would walk in to fill any vacuum left behind by the capsizing of British power and prestige – did not occur.

Roger Louis is an American scholar who has specialised in British and Belgian colonial history in Africa and came by this route to the study of American wartime attitudes to the British colonial empire in Imperialism at Bay (1977). The present volume, which tells the story of British policy-making during the life of the Attlee Administration, is heavily dependant on British diplomatic archives, though it makes some use of State Department documents. A long book, it reads very fluently throughout. It is, however, rather curiously shaped: Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, as well as the Arab world from Cyrenaica to Saudi Arabia, are included down to 1947, after which the perspective narrows to take in only the three major controversies involving Palestine, the Suez Canal Zone and the Iranian oilfields. Professor Louis is inclined to write as if mysterious external forces were compelling him to be more selective than he wishes. ‘The author regrets,’ observes one footnote, ‘that the structure of this part of the book denies the opportunity to discuss in detail the birth of the Libyan state and the beginning of the trauma of Cyprus.’ His point of view, in a sense paradoxical, is one of great admiration for Ernest Bevin, whose personality shaped so much of British policy during this period. Pen portraits and intellectual assessments of individual British diplomats are almost invariably flattering. It was under the inspiration of the best and the brightest, it seems, that Britain missed her post-war cues.

A political figure of the first order in the first Labour government to be elected with an absolute majority, Bevin intended that his foreign policy should have a distinctive, democratic socialist flavour, but he nonetheless intended it to be the policy of a Great Power. Influence was to be exercised, prestige sustained, through the informal empire of economic aid and political partnership rather than by proconsular domination, massive basing of troops, and the toppling of refractory governments. But this new type of enlightened patronage, if it were ever to be applied on a sufficiently large scale to be effective, would in reality cost much more than traditional imperialism, whereas Britain had been not just set back by the war but in relative terms impoverished for good. Professor Louis regards Bevin’s deliberate forbearance from ‘toppling kings and unseating prime ministers’ as the foremost characteristic of his ‘grand strategy’. This is surely to rate a negative virtue too highly; and in any case to imply that such methods had been much more frequently resorted to in peacetime in the past than had in fact been the case. A more positive version would say that Bevin genuinely sought to convince Middle Eastern countries that he wished to replace the apparatus of imperialist domination with alliances between true equals. The policy was intended to be economically generous, and it took for granted a community of perceived interests – in, for example, resisting Soviet expansionism – that only doubtfully existed. It was not an exclusive strategy, in that Bevin often hoped for American involvement, not only as part of his general policy of encouraging the Americans to assume world responsibilities, but more specifically as a character reference for a reformed ex-imperialist Britain.

The leading challenger of these assumptions was the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who asked why if Britain was going to give up the empire in India it was necessary to retain long, expensive and increasingly vulnerable lines of communication through the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Among the choicest revelations of this book is the series of elegant, even sardonic minutes that were written in refutation of this heresy by such as Gladwyn Jebb, Orme Sargent and Oliver Harvey. These arguments were of two kinds: that once Britain started writing off places that she either owned or where she had treaty rights, there was nowhere short of her own shores at which she would be able to draw the line; and that such a withdrawal from the Middle East would create a vacuum which the Soviet Union would inevitably enter. After all, in the first years after the war, it was Britain and her imperial position that lay in the sights of the Soviet Union, and it was greatly feared that the United States would not be sufficiently alert to the universality of the Communist threat.

The British Chiefs of Staff had just ended a war in which, in the Middle East, their forces had been the principal victors. They therefore tended to assume that these forces would be able indefinitely to occupy whatever real estate they chose throughout the region. The Canal Zone and Palestine were, as Louis says, ‘usually regarded as the heart of a vast British military preserve’. There were 200,000 British troops in the Canal Zone at the end of the war, and there were still 38,000 left when Labour went out of office in 1951; this compared with the 10,000 maximum authorised for peacetime by the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936. Bevin wanted to cut back drastically on the size of this force so as to establish a new-style political partnership with moderate Egyptian nationalists, but he certainly did not want to withdraw from the whole region. ‘In peace and war,’ he said in a Cabinet memorandum of 1949, ‘the Middle East is an area of cardinal importance to the United Kingdom, second only to the United Kingdom itself.’ But in that case there would have to be a British military presence in the region indefinitely. Yet it was soon clear that the price of a political partnership with Egypt would at the very least include a total withdrawal not only from Cairo and Alexandria but from the Suez Canal Zone. After some hesitation Bevin resolved on that bold stroke, believing that it would buy him the desired partnership. It did not: partly because the main nationalist party was out of government, partly because the Egyptians wanted, as well as their own sovereignty, the overlordship of the peoples of the Upper Nile, but also – and here Elizabeth Monroe was almost certainly right in her excellent little book on Britain’s Moment in the Middle East – because Egypt was sick and tired of compulsory partnerships, which as in this case would bring British troops back whenever there was any trouble ‘in adjacent territories’. The agreement collapsed, the British stayed in the Canal Zone and the Bevin policy was winded at the first fence.

Bevin took it hard when the very same thing happened to him over Iraq, where the RAF wanted to go on using the air bases because Russian targets could be reached from them, while the Iraqis were supposed to be pleased to have their defence policy controlled by an Anglo-Iraqi Joint Defence Board. He was proud that the Treaty of Portsmouth of January 1948 was ‘in spirit and in heart a Treaty of complete equality in all respects’. But he missed the nationalists’ point. There was simply nothing which Britain had to give that would seem to compensate countries like Iraq for finding themselves automatically lined up on one side of the Cold War.

When in May 1946 it had seemed as if the Canal was to go, the Chief of Staff had drawn up a reproachful inventory of all the Middle East countries, showing everywhere except in the Transjordan the uncertainty and fragility of Britain’s situation. Since the politicians’ official answer to the question of where the British base was to go when the Canal Zone was no longer available was that it was to go to Palestine, the Army started systematically heaving stores into this new haven of stability. Winston Churchill, now in opposition, dissented radically from this move. He had lost interest in sponsoring a Jewish state in part of Palestine at the end of 1944 when the Stern Gang, of which Yitzak Shamir was one of the leaders, had murdered Lord Moyne. ‘I am not aware,’ he wrote on 6 July 1945 at the very end of his wartime premiership, ‘of the slightest advantage that has ever accrued to Great Britain from this painful and thankless task. Someone else should have their turn now.’ It was Churchill who, in a House of Commons speech on 1 August 1946, proposed the course that was eventually followed. If America could not be more helpful, he said, ‘we should give notice that we will return our mandate to UNO and that we will evacuate Palestine within a specified period.’

Bevin’s egotism, his masterful temperament, and his saying that he staked his political reputation on finding a compromise settlement over Palestine, made the failure more lurid and drew on him much of the virulence of the anti-British propaganda campaign run by the American Zionist camp. Yet when the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry recommended the immediate entry of 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine and the eventual creation after a period of UN trusteeship of a binational state in which Arabs and Jews should have equal representation, he was actually the only member of the Cabinet in favour of accepting the report, if only because the Americans might thereby be committed to helping to make it work. Attlee took, as he said, a less rosy view. He saw little reason to suppose that Britain could obtain American help and believed the report would land Britain with a policy which would set both sides against her. The Chiefs of Staff had said that they could impose a solution on one community but not on both.

Nevertheless Britain did agree to a new Anglo-American formula which was at the last minute dropped by Truman as a result of political pressure. Then in his Yom Kippur speech the President declared, without offering any warning to the British, that the 100,000 Jews should be allowed in and a decision on other matters be put off. This was the beginning of that distrust of the character of American policy-making in the Middle East, because of its vulnerability to domestic political considerations, which has been an almost constant feature of all subsequent efforts to produce a settlement.

It caused the British, sickened by such Jewish terrorism as Menachem Begin directed against the King David Hotel and alarmed by the danger of a revival of anti-semitism, to throw in their hand. The result was chaos. Professor Louis describes America displaying herself at her worst and in response Britain doing likewise; both showed scant regard for the two-year-old United Nations whose prestige they were supposed to be building up. Only one power pursued a decisive policy and that was in the opposite direction to the one expected. The Soviet Union consistently backed the independence of Israel and co-operated wholeheartedly at the United Nations with the Jewish representatives. The vote of the Russian bloc was decisive in providing a two-thirds majority for partition. The Americans and the British vied with each other in making it clear that they had no intention of contributing any armed forces to impose the new frontiers. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff, consulted about the possibility of an international police force, named 104,000 as the absolute minimum number required – a number which, in the event of serious fighting, might have to be doubled or trebled. The American quota would ‘represent substantially our entire present ground reserve, both Marine and Army’. The British were not prepared to contribute a company platoon. Their policy was to sulk because, having thrown on the UN the duty of making a decision on Palestine, they found the UN adopting a policy they had rejected. They even refused until the last three weeks of the mandate to let in advance UN staff to organise Jerusalem as an international city, while the Americans rejected an appeal to install a Marine guard there in order to give to that idea some semblance of reality. No one, Louis says, suggested that the Russians should be asked to help, although here was a case where the United States and the Soviet Union were agreed about the solution, and although such joint action had been considered the normal method of behaviour when the UN had been set up just three years before.

While the Soviet backing for the Jews was clearcut – leaving British diplomats to speculate that ‘a Jewish state would be a spearhead of Communism’ – American policy lurched drunkenly from one side to the other depending upon whether the State Department or the White House was in command. This book shows that when President Truman consulted his advisers on the eve of partition about whether the United States should recognise the state of Israel he had already pledged himself secretly to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in favour of swift recognition. When the arguments were put by Clark Clifford at that White House Staff meeting they were denounced by General Marshall as a ‘transparent dodge to win a few votes’ at the price of the dignity of the Presidency. In Truman’s presence, the Secretary of State declared: ‘I say bluntly that if the President were to follow Mr Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.’ Both the United States and the Soviet Union recognised Israel on the first day.

The last months of Attlee’s Government were haunted by a crisis in Iran almost to the same degree as the last months of President Carter’s Bevin’s health was deteriorating fast when the status of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was put in question by the radical fifty-fifty profit-sharing deal that the Americans had made with the Saudis. The fires of his radicalism in foreign policy were burning low. The Labour Government’s policy had been, as always, to make a deal with a moderate nationalist in time to head off the extremists, but for this to work more radical decisions needed to be made more quickly than in practice proved to be possible. Iran was a classic case. Far too much time was spent in persuading the forceful chairman of the AIOC (of which the Government was the majority shareholder) to change his approach to the oil scene: the opportunity was lost to make a fresh start with the strong but moderate nationalist General Razmara before he was assassinated. Britain had to deal instead with the weepy, fainting, pyjama-clad exhibitionist Mohammed Musaddiq, of whom it might be said that he was marginally easier to negotiate with than the Ayatollah Khomeini. The British believed him to be a lunatic, the Americans thought him rational and stable though undeniably difficult Musaddiq went ahead and nationalised. ‘You do not know how evil they are,’ he said to Averell Harriman of the British. ‘You do not know how they sully the things they touch.’

By now the paramount need to uphold Britain’s prestige inspired the two ministers most directly concerned – Herbert Morrison, the new and manifestly ill-suited Foreign Secretary, and Emmanuel Shinwell, the Minister of Defence, who held strongly to the domino theory about Britain’s positions in the Middle East: if Abadan were nationalised today, the Suez Canal would be nationalised tomorrow. Thus there was much support inside the Labour Cabinet for taking a stand to show, as Shinwell put it, ‘that there is a limit to our willingness to have advantage taken of our good nature.’ But when the actual requirements of a military operation in the Gulf came to be considered there was less enthusiasm in the Cabinet. The Chief of the Air Staff favoured ‘a really bold and powerful strike’, but how was this to be achieved, it was asked, when Britain had been deprived of the use of the Indian Army (whose function it had usually been to carry out such distant operations without the need for too much being said in the House of Commons)? Still, much of the atmosphere in Britain that summer suggested that a military strike was being planned.

The Iranians believed in rubbing the British satans’ noses in the mess. When in September 1951 Musaddiq gave the British staff at the immense Abadan refinery seven days’ notice to quit, the Labour Cabinet had to decide whether or not to seize the island of Abadan Professor Louis shows that at this rather late point in the day Attlee took charge. The Cabinet decided that force could not be used because ‘we could not afford to break with the United States on an issue of this kind.’ But the issue, coming at the fag end of Labour’s period in government, left in the country a residue of bitterness and resentment towards unappreciative orientals and towards the United States. A fierce sense, prevalent in many quarters, that next time a stand must be made before British prestige went entirely down the sink had created the psychological setting for the Suez crisis of 1956.