Commentary Magazine

The Middle East 1945-50, by George Kirk; Anglo-Egyptian Relations 1800-1953, by John Marlowe

Britain’s Middle East Course

The Middle East 1945-50.
by George Kirk.
Issued under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Oxford University Press. 320 pp. 32/6.

Anglo-Egyptian Relations 1800-1953.
by John Marlowe.
London, Cresset Press. 422 pp. 30 shillings.


After 1945 there were two great areas formerly dominated by Britain in which the postwar British government had to come to terms with new political forces: Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In the former, thanks to the Labor party’s inheritance of the Liberal legacy of freedom for India, the transfer of power was managed in such a fashion that Britain remained on good terms with the successor states: a remarkable achievement, the more so since the partition of India involved the massacre of hundreds of thousands, and the flight of tens of millions of Hindus and Moslems. In the Middle East, by contrast, Britain largely lost her former imperial status as the “Paramount Power,” without obtaining the cooperation of any significant state or political force in the area. Arab and Persian nationalism in the main is hostile to what remains of the British connection; Turkey is in the American “sphere,” Israel is nowhere at all, and only Jordan, plus a few minor sheikhdoms, remains a reluctant British client. If the Arab League has any reality, it is not as a vehicle of British policy—the role assigned to it by the British officials who virtually brought it into being during the war—but as an instrument of militant pan-Arabism.

The two books under review deal with separate aspects of this tangle. Mr. Marlowe concerns himself with Egypt and, having no official ax to grind, is successful in explaining the troubled course of Anglo-Egyptian relations from Napoleon’s days to our own. Mr. Kirk, Chatham House’s éminence grise in the Middle East and one of the principal ideologists of Anglo-Arabism during and after the war, has a more difficult task. The Arab League was not merely a British creation, designed to supply postwar Britain with a stable political foundation in the Middle East; it was the concretization of a vision. The originator of the vision was T. E. Lawrence, and the politicians, civil servants, intelligence experts, Orientalists, and assorted backroom-boys who toiled in his wake for thirty years were sustained by the splendor of the dream he had bequeathed to them: nothing less than a new Imperial Myth for the 20th century, a subterranean association between the British Empire and the Moslem world; perhaps—who could tell?—a profound coming together of Christendom and Islam in a region of the world threatened by godless Russia, laical France, materialist America, secularist Turkey, and international Jewry. So they labored for thirty years, from Professor Toynbee—the arch-priest of the cult once it had stabilized itself and acquired a hierarchy—to the lowliest clerk in an intelligence office. And at the end of it all there was complete, total, ignominious failure—not merely in Palestine but in Egypt, in Persia, in Pakistan, in Iraq, in places where no Zionist ever set foot and no foreigner could be blamed for the outcome. While India and Israel—despite the long subjection of the former and the sanguinary emergence of the latter—have on the whole adopted a pro-British attitude, not a single Moslem state has failed to bite the hand that so assiduously fed it for a generation. The misdeeds of the French are forgotten (they are once more popular in Syria and Lebanon), but the benefactions of the British are remembered—and repaid by unreasoning hatred. It is enough to sadden any moralist; and to cap it all, the rising generation affects to despise not merely the wisdom of its elders and betters, but the spiritual legacy of Islam, if not the sacred Koran itself.



The political aspect of this debacle is described with dry objectivity by Professor Kirk, himself an outstanding worker in the vineyard of Anglo-Arabism and perhaps the foremost expert on Middle East politics in this generation. An earlier volume of his, on the same process up to 1946, caused something of a sensation through its liberal display of anti-Jewish (not merely anti-Zionist) sentiment, and had to be revised. In the work under review he has managed, with what must have been a considerable effort, to keep his feelings under better control. The result is a massive reference work for seekers after factual information, and a heavy tombstone on the grave of Anglo-Arabism. For the corpse is now buried, and Professor Kirk has written the epitaph. From his account the curious can discover not merely when and where the great scheme came unstuck, but—within limits—why it was bound to fail. The limits are imposed by Weltanschauung, not by political discretion or manipulation. For Mr. Kirk is a scholar, and if his scholarly exegesis leads him to a fact he has no hesitation in stating it, though naturally he prefers facts which fit his bias. Thus he still grieves over Palestine, but he no longer suggests by implication that the whole of Britain’s postwar policy in the Middle East was wrecked by Arab hatred of Zionism. We are yet to be told the full story of Persia, where two billion dollars worth of British investment went down the drain in 1951—the present volume carries the account only to the penultimate stage; when this debacle, and the withdrawal from Suez and the Sudan, have been related, the Palestine chapter will at long last fall into perspective.



There are aspects of this process which no conservative historian trained to view the Orient through the distorting lens of Toynbee’s philosophy can be expected to understand, though Mr. Kirk, who has written a short standard history of the Middle East, could have gleaned some useful notions from Professor H. A. R. Gibb’s Modern Trends in Islam one of the few contemporary Western investigations not encumbered by politically useful but unscholarly reverence for the Moslem heritage. By contrast, the reader of Mr. Marlowe’s book is furnished with the perfect antidote to the lucubrations of the Toynbee school. Mr. Marlowe, though a connoisseur of the subject, is an intelligent amateur historian who writes in a pleasingly simple style, steers clear of footnotes, and employs no learned apparatus. Yet his work is thoroughly professional—he demolishes official and popular legends (such as the story that Disraeli brought off a great coup when he purchased the Suez Canal shares) with a quiet air of authority which carries conviction. Better still, he is refreshingly modern, liberal, éclairé, and contemptuous of romantic lumber. There are no Laurentian flourishes, no mystique of the desert. (Islam, it is time people were told, was always a culture of the cities, and of the middle class in the cities. Its alleged relationship to the Arabia Deserta of the archaeologist is an invention of romantic belletrists.) Instead, the reader gets a sober account of the British occupation of Egypt, of its inevitable conflict with all the genuinely nationalist forces in the country, its ruinous commitment to a regime finally embodied in the unbelievable Farouk, and its graceless abdication before mob violence and military pressure. He is also offered some interesting reflections on the destructive impact of laissez-faire economics on the Egyptian countryside, a process which multiplied the population while undermining its health and its living standards. Mr. Marlowe deserves to be read—by the policy-makers most of all.



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