Reviewed by: Ben Fortna Author: James Barr Publisher: Simon & Schuster Price (RRP): £25
This engaging and well-researched history of Anglo-French rivalry in the Middle East from the First World War to 1948 might easily have been subtitled ‘With Friends Like These…’
James Barr’s lively account provides some quite astounding sketches of bluster, bickering and bravado – and that is just on the British side. Not to be outdone, the French display a penchant for harbouring a deep-rooted mistrust and resentment towards ‘perfidious Albion’ and at times almost stereotypical Gallic pride.
In this tale of strategic manoeuvring, imperial intrigue, one-upmanship and manipulation, few emerge with much credit.
Barr’s account covers much familiar ground yet exposes a number of surprising details, including, most forcefully, the extent to which the French supported Zionist terrorism that did so much to force the British to abandon the Palestine Mandate in 1948 and to create the Jewish state. The cold-blooded assassination of the British minister of state for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, and the bombing of the British headquarters in the King David Hotel are only the most notorious episodes in this grimly successful turn to terror.
Before that disastrous denouement to what historian Elizabeth Monroe once referred to as Britain’s “moment in the Middle East”, we follow British-French jockeying on a number of stages, including, most poignantly, the First World War. Retracing these encounters in light of recent western adventures in the region frequently makes disturbing reading, particularly concerning Britain’s brutal bombardment of Iraq and French shelling in Syria.
The book begins with a vivid description of the deliberations with which the French and British carved up the region between themselves, early in the First World War. The demarcation in the title refers to that proposed by a super confident but amateur Middle East ‘expert’ in a meeting in Downing Street in December 1915.
Mark Sykes indicated a line running from “the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”. Balfour was sceptical but Lloyd George, full of anti-Ottoman bluster, was enthusiastic.
The British stance that emerged would have dramatic and frequently disastrous consequences, including the scandalously conflicting promises made to the Arabs, the French and the Zionists during the prosecution of the war. Similarly problematic was Britain’s attempt to rule Iraq ‘on the cheap,’ relying on air power while keeping a grim eye on the bottom line as weakened imperial reach attempted to withstand the rising tide of self-determination.
This book’s focus is squarely on the imperial actors, with all of their eccentricities and foibles.
We encounter Charles de Gaulle fuming against British policies and the “fanatical” British officer Orde Wingate who, when not organising aggressive night raids against the Arab insurgents in Palestine, would “sit in his tent naked, reading the Bible and scrubbing himself with a brush,” to take only two of many colourful examples.
The focus on foreigners means their indigenous counterparts appear as less fully developed. Their portrayal usually lacks the nuance, contextualisation and refinement afforded their Anglo-French counterparts. But for a book based on British and French sources and, to be fair, intent on exploring the imperial rivalry as contested in the Middle East, that is surely only natural.
The spectre of the Fashoda incident of 1898, when Britain and France nearly came to blows over the Sudan, hangs over this history.
As events unfolded in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, each imperial power became more deeply convinced that the other was bent on driving them and their influence from the region, a pattern sadly reinforced by the USA and the USSR in the subsequent Cold War era.
Benjamin Fortna is a professor in the history of the Middle East at the University of London