False Prophets by Nigel Ashton review – Britain and the Middle East

A deft and fascinating account of British prime ministers’ flawed interventions in the region, from Suez to IraqEvery postwar British leader has seen the Middle East as a threatening place. They worried about the loss of empire and the risk of having oil supplies cut off; made bombastic claims about new Hitlers and transnational terrorism. But whatever the specific issues of the day, one thing has been remarkably consistent: most prime ministers since the second world war have overseen some kind of military intervention in the Middle East. That is one of the most striking themes of Nigel Ashton’s fascinating book on the beliefs and relationships that shaped British prime ministers’ policies in the region, from the Suez crisis to the Arab uprisings.Diary entries, telegrams, diplomatic records and, where possible, interviews with aides and advisers help bring out the psychology, preoccupations and prejudices that framed British decision making. The result is an empathetic but not a sympathetic account. In almost every chapter Ashton identifies a tendency to approach the Middle East with a mix of fear and hubris. Even as they saw the region as dangerous, British leaders ensured that their troops and officials were frequently entangled in it. Long after the formal structures of empire came to an end, an assumption persisted that Britain should and would have a role in shaping the region. In the early 1950s, a diplomat wrote of lying awake at night, fearing that all of Asia was moving out of Britain’s orbit, and that “our western civilisation will be soon strangled and subjected, with its bombs unusable in its pocket”. Continue reading...

False Prophets by Nigel Ashton review – Britain and the Middle East

A deft and fascinating account of British prime ministers’ flawed interventions in the region, from Suez to Iraq

Every postwar British leader has seen the Middle East as a threatening place. They worried about the loss of empire and the risk of having oil supplies cut off; made bombastic claims about new Hitlers and transnational terrorism. But whatever the specific issues of the day, one thing has been remarkably consistent: most prime ministers since the second world war have overseen some kind of military intervention in the Middle East. That is one of the most striking themes of Nigel Ashton’s fascinating book on the beliefs and relationships that shaped British prime ministers’ policies in the region, from the Suez crisis to the Arab uprisings.

Diary entries, telegrams, diplomatic records and, where possible, interviews with aides and advisers help bring out the psychology, preoccupations and prejudices that framed British decision making. The result is an empathetic but not a sympathetic account. In almost every chapter Ashton identifies a tendency to approach the Middle East with a mix of fear and hubris. Even as they saw the region as dangerous, British leaders ensured that their troops and officials were frequently entangled in it. Long after the formal structures of empire came to an end, an assumption persisted that Britain should and would have a role in shaping the region. In the early 1950s, a diplomat wrote of lying awake at night, fearing that all of Asia was moving out of Britain’s orbit, and that “our western civilisation will be soon strangled and subjected, with its bombs unusable in its pocket”.

Continue reading...