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Book Review 261: Britain's Moment in the Middle East 1914-1956

December 30, 2012 - Harry Eagar
BRITAIN'S MOMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1914-1956, by Elizabeth Monroe. 254 pages. Johns Hopkins

It was a short moment, just 42 years, less then 1% of the Middle East's history. Journalist Elizabeth Monroe's 1963 book also is brief, but concentrated in the way that some English writers have.

It holds up well, too, after half a century, which is more than most books written about the Middle East in the '60s do.

When Britain came in as a colonial power, the Moslems were weak, hungry, sick, ignorant, illiterate, politically incompetent and resentful. This was more true of the Arabs, somewhat less so of the Persians, with the Turks somewhere in the middle.

When Britain left, the Koran Belt was marginally better fed, healthier and literate. It remained resentful, ignorant and politically incompetent. The British were, and still are, blamed for this. This hardly seems fair to the Turks, who were colonial masters for hundreds of years.

The historian A.J.P. Taylor used to distinguish between governing and merely administering. The late Ottomans could barely even administer, and the British has no interest in governing, either.

By the mid-19th century, England had more empire than it cared to look after and was loath to acquire more. Thus, its first acquisition in the Middle East, Aden, was a port that controlled the Red Sea. The British neither knew nor cared what happened in the medieval Yemen that lay outside the walls of Aden.

Their thinking was entirely strategic, and so is Monroe's analysis.

No one cared what the locals did or thought as long as they were quiet.

At first, Britain's strategic intent was to block the move of Russia on India. Russia was then gobbling up the khanates of the Caspian Area, people even more backward than most of the Arabs.

Britain preferred a barrier of independent but non-hostile states – Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan. It wanted the French corralled in the western Mediterranean but had no interest in places like Egypt, Palestine or Syria for themselves.

Thus it opposed opening a canal at Suez. However, once the canal was opened, Britain, in the name of protecting India, had to start taking over the Middle East. Monroe explains clearly how that messy situation evolved and then goes on to marvel that Britain managed to ride out the vagaries of Moslem politics during the interwar years in a chapter called, without irony, “The Years of Good Management.”

While generally excellent, Monroe gives insufficient attention to the overriding concern of the British colonialists, which was not Russia but the prospect of what used to be blandly called communal disturbances.

The Moslems were not then, as they are not today, nationalist in spirit, except for a tiny film of western-influenced (and sporadically important) elites. They were Moslems.

Often Britain had a policy it would have liked to impose in India but did not for fear it would set off riots in Egypt, and vice versa. This vitiated whatever feeble intentions toward modernization British rulers may have felt.

As a result, the Middle East came out in the mid-1950s as backward politically as it had been in 1750.

Oil later became a complicating factor, and Monroe provides a brief overview.

After the war, Britain faced what she calls a “loss of nerve.” This is the imperialist viewpoint. More realistically, an impoverished England could not afford an empire any more, besides which the socialists running the government didn't want one on any terms.

It is by no means clear that even if the modern powers had wanted to assist the Moslems to modernize, they could have done so. They have made a complete hash of it on their own for the last half century.

Thus Monroe's imperialist assessment of the Balfour Declaration as “one of the greatest mistakes” makes sense only if you also believe that the Arabs are capable of self-government in a modern state.

That they are incapable of democracy is obvious. “Democratic systems were later to be discarded in country after country with a readiness that was tacit acknowledgment of their unsuitability for the less developed countries,” writes Monroe.

As we observed in 2012, the peoples of the Koran Belt are not even capable of operating modern despotisms.


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