My Weekly Reader 13 October 2018.

Geography—like many other things—is Destiny.  The Middle East has been shaped by its location between the upper mill-stone and the lower millstone.  Greeks fought Persians; Romans fought Hellenistic Greeks, then fought Sassanids; Christians (Byzantine and Latin) fought Muslims (Arab and Turk); and Anglo-Americans fought Russians.

The last of these struggles centered on the region’s place in an increasingly globalized world economy.   Sea routes, then air, routes through the Middle East made it a vital link between Europe and Asia.  The rise of oil as the world’s industrial fuel made the Middle East a vital component of economic growth.  (As always before, the people of the region were disdained, not least because they habitually accommodated themselves to whoever held the whip-hand.  Their leaders “Medized,” “Hellenized,” “Romanized,” “Arabized,” “Ottomanized,” and “Westernized.”[1])

Through the Nineteenth Century, Britain supported the decrepit Ottoman Empire.  The Phil-Hellene British elite held the Ottomans in low regard, but they were determined never to allow Tsarist Russia to advance southward to dominate Britain’s line of communications with India and the China trade.  The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) intensified this determination.[2]  The outcome of the First World War in the Middle East appeared to finally relieve the danger.  Russia collapsed into revolution and emerged as a pariah state pre-occupied with its internal problems.  Britain and France parted-out the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire.[3]  Liberated from the Russian danger, the British and French fell to bickering among themselves.[4]

Then came the Second World War.  The war wrecked both Britain and France, while elevating the United States and the Soviet Union into global super-powers.  The unwilling Anglo-French retreat from the Middle East coupled with the renewed Russian threat to draw in the Americans.

The British were reluctant to release their grip.[5]  They had, after all, alone fought from the first day of the war to its last without suffering military conquest.  In the last stages of the war, British leaders began to plan new arrangements that would allow them to exert a guiding hand on Middle Eastern developments.  Britain’s lack of money and power quickly undermined these schemes.   Israel’s self-proclamation (1948), the rise of the charismatic Egyptian military dictator Gamal Nasser (1952) in place of the feeble King Farouk (1952), the American supplanting of Britain as the predominant power in Iran after the 1953 coup, Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal and America’s brutal intervention to halt the botched Anglo-French-Israeli Suez Campaign (1956) against Nasser, and the beginning of the Iraqi Revolution with the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy (1958) marked some of the Stations of the Cross on Britain’s painful imperial Via Dolorosa.

[1] It might be wondered if a recognition of this endless submissive adaptability on the part of unprincipled leaders is part of what fuels the rage of contemporary radical Islam.

[2] M.S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations (1966).

[3] Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan.  It also sought a tighter grip on Egypt.

[4] See, most recently, James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (2011).

[5] James Barr, Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (2018).

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