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”.
Ashton deftly sketches successive leaders’ romanticised views of the Middle East as the cradle of “Judeo-Christian values” and as a last bastion of empire (James Callaghan told a journalist that Suez had been a worse disaster than the loss of the American colonies). Meanwhile, successive British prime ministers framed populist Arab leaders as “Hitlers” or “Mussolinis”, casting them as oriental despots.Fearing Arab nationalism’s potential to unite the region and change the terms of trade for oil, Anthony Eden sought to overthrow the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser even before the Suez crisis. When the latter eventually seized the canal, Eden told US president Dwight Eisenhower that it was the 1930s all over again: it threatened an “ignoble end” to Britain’s long history as the leader of Europe in the fight for freedom. Eisenhower was apparently baffled by the overblown sense of existential threat. Meanwhile, MI6 aimed to engineer a coup in Syria, just a few years after the US and UK had backed the coup against prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran. Such attempts to maintain control in fact sowed the seeds of lasting mistrust.
The Hitler comparison was used repeatedly; for Nasser, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Yet, depending on the assessments of different prime ministers, similar leaders – or indeed, the very same leaders – would be framed as moderate forces for stability. While numerous books have covered the Arab-Israeli wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, Ashton’s book provides a useful account of the smaller, subtler interventions, such as Britain’s covert operations in Yemen in the 1960s, fighting the Dhofar rebels in Oman in the 60s and 70s, and sending rapid support to the governments of Jordan and Kuwait when they felt threatened, well before the days of Saddam.
Relations with Israel were shaped in part by close relations between leaders, with Callaghan in particular developing a deep bond of trust with his Israeli counterpart, Menachem Begin. In other cases, a sense of shared values or moral mission loomed large. Gordon Brown grew up seeing slides of the Holy Land as a place of pilgrimage for his preacher father. Margaret Thatcher’s father, a lay preacher, imbued her with a strong commitment to what she called Judeo-Christian values, even if her first meeting with an Israeli prime minister – Begin – was a tense one, since she saw him as responsible for past terrorism against British officers.
Britain’s “frenemy” relationship with the US, its closest ally yet biggest rival in the region, was a persistent driver of prime ministerial ambitions and anxieties. Eden privately fumed that the US thought Britain was imperialist but took American interests to be “virginal”. Every leader pursued some kind of partnership as the US emerged as the world’s largest economy and military power, out of a mix of necessity, shared interests and personal rapport.
But only Tony Blair supported standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the US. A full-throated evangelist for the alliance as a force for global good, he is portrayed by Ashton as following the lead of Churchill, who saw the “special relationship” as having a mission to combat the “peril to Christian civilisation”. Blair, who did not conceive of himself as a man nostalgic for empire, framed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as a liberation of local populations that would bring peace and democracy. But many in the region – where the legacy of empire is prominent in the public consciousness – saw them as simply a continuation of imperial “civilising” discourses used as a rationale for violence and dominance.
The decades after the second world war are often portrayed as an uninterrupted period of global peace and prosperity, but the Middle East has been beset by conflicts. One of the problems is that big powers use the region as a place to play out their own rivalries, with the game enabled by weak states whose rulers are used to foreign cash and arms. The fact that foreign powers then portray the Middle East as uniquely troubled indicates a striking blindness to their own role.
Ashton’s book makes this clear at a very human level. While the study of international relations often focuses on states that are presumed to act out of self-interest, detailed research like this reveals them to be made up of fallible, busy people, who have incomplete information and, are acting under pressure, cannot foresee the full consequences of their actions and have very different ideas of what the “national interest” actually means. And as so often with people who feel threatened, they rarely seem to appreciate that, for those in the region, the threat mostly seems to be coming the other way.
• False Prophets: British Leaders’ Fateful Fascination with the Middle East from Suez to Syria is published by Atlantic (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.