he has produced a good book, even if a great deal of the story is, though endlessly complicated, quite well known. The British took over much of the Middle East in 1919 and were strangely full of confidence: Arab and Jew would together be grateful for the blessings of the Empire; the dominant Ottoman Sunni elite would run Iraq and Transjordan; the Egyptians could be strung along for ever. After the Battle of El-Alamein at the end of 1942, a certain confidence remained, and it must be said that the British presence had been hugely beneficial: you can see as much just from the Aswan Low Dam on the Nile, a beautiful construction dating back to 1902.
Conventional wisdom has it that Soviet Russia swiftly became Britain’s most deadly enemy after 1945, while our great ally was the United States.
This version of history, according to James Barr’s magnificently researched new book, is in urgent need of reassessment. He demonstrates that the U.S. was just as determined, if not more so, to destroy Britain’s global power and influence as Joseph Stalin’s Russia... This is a splendid book.
James Barr — author of A Line in the Sand, an account of Britain and France’s earlier attempts to carve up the Middle East and each other — has written another riveting history, masterfully arrayed and engagingly written. Like a good conversation, it is full of great anecdotes that even those who know this story might have missed.
Barr tells a serious story, but it is never heavy going. He has mined newly declassified State Department files on Iran, previously unpublished cabinet secretary notebooks and the diaries of John Slade-Baker, onetime foreign correspondent for this newspaper and, Barr suggests, an SIS agent in the Middle East, to tremendous effect. The passages on a series of hair-raising intelligence operations led by Kim Roosevelt, a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and a career CIA officer, might have been lifted straight from John le Carré. If there is one criticism, it is that the story is told almost completely from the Great Powers’ perspective and archives.
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Lords of the Desert bustles impressively with detail and anecdote.
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Reading this book as Brexit bungling convulses Britain, a recent tweet about the country by Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden, comes to mind. “This used to be a nation providing leadership to the world. Now it can’t even provide leadership to itself.”
One of the many pleasures offered by Lords of the Desert, which narrates the rivalry between Britain and the United States in the Middle East from the end of the second world war through to 1967, is the quotations that are liberally strewn across its pages. They have been culled from memoirs or official documents unearthed in British or US archives and testify to the research that has gone into this dense but consistently fascinating account... Some reveal the deep complacency of influential individuals... Others are beautiful examples of the ancient art of the diplomatic put-down. Several illustrate perfectly the mindset of British decision-makers. Naturally, this evolved over the lengthy period that the book covers... one element is constant: a failure to comprehend quite how far and how fast the balance of power had shifted away from Britain.
James Barr’s beautifully written and deeply researched book covers 25 years of competition between Britain and the US for hegemony in the Middle East... it goes far beyond classic diplomatic history, the genre of “what one clerk said to another”, superbly illustrating the constraints of Britain’s decline and America’s inexorable rise, the two united only by hostility to the Soviet Union and concern for their respective national interests. Barr also deftly integrates the role of secret intelligence in foreign policy, drawing on the diary of a little-known journalist-cum-MI6 agent to add indiscreet and illuminating detail....If most of the events covered are broadly familiar, they are seen from an unusual angle, just as the author’s acclaimed A Line in the Sand placed unrelenting Anglo-French rivalry at the heart of the history of the Middle East in the first half of the 20th century. The lesson of both books is that as war rages, strategies for defeating enemies are closely linked to securing the spoils of peace to gain advantage over allies.
Britain’s Middle Eastern empire of tractable, conservative monarchies that Lawrence had striven to create had fallen apart to be replaced by an American version. James Barr in Lords of the Desert builds the case that “from 1942, until Britain’s exit from the Gulf in 1971, Britain and the United States were invariably competitors in the Middle East, and often outright rivals”... Barr describes this transfer of power in a brilliant, detached and eye-opening narrative that matches his A Line in the Sand in pace. It is a gripping tale of diplomatic legerdemain, political hypocrisy and, once the intelligence boys got going, derring-do. There are even comic moments when the world of Carry on Spying intruded into high politics... Barr concludes with some lively tales of SAS grit and audacity in the uplands of Oman and the canny manipulation of local rulers.