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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

False Prophets by Nigel Ashton — meddling within the Middle East

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In this participating examine of British insurance policies within the Middle East and north Africa, Nigel Ashton makes an statement that’s all too simple for critics to neglect: “History is not an experiment in which we have the luxury of running a scientific control to see what another outcome would have looked like.”

Domestically, political leaders might reach making U-turns however, given the variable dynamics of worldwide affairs, adjustments of tack are far tougher to impact. Leaders are blessed — or cursed — by the selections of their predecessors and the forces that seem to dictate nationwide priorities, and by the responses to their actions by actors whose calculations, and motivations, lie outdoors their management.

In False Prophets, Ashton frames his examine by means of the lens of 10 Downing Street, displaying how its occupants, from Anthony Eden to David Cameron, handled successive postwar crises on the planet’s most hydrocarbon-rich, however politically risky, area.

While this hardly breaks new floor and should not provide a complete image of all of the forces at work, together with the attitudes and ideologies driving individuals or forces perceived as hostile to British pursuits, it has the benefit of shaping a cacophony of complicated occasions right into a extremely readable narrative, the place the person emotions and prejudices of successive prime ministers meet, to not say conflict with, the actualities of realpolitik. At a time when Boris Johnson is attempting to extricate himself from self-inflicted home difficulties by adopting a “Churchillian” posture in confronting a international energy, this e book is a helpful essay in how to not conduct international coverage.

In Ashton’s view, key occasions that dominate the narrative of British engagement with the Middle East from the Suez War of 1956 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 have been pushed by “prime ministerial action and initiative”. He cites the statement by Peter Hennessy, the historian and constitutional professional, that “war is an intensely prime ministerial activity”.

In some situations dangerous choices with unfavorable outcomes have been pushed by prime ministerial ardour. Eden was obsessed that the Egyptian chief Abdel Nasser was a brand new Mussolini who positioned his palms on Britain’s jugular vein when he nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956. It was a view that drove him to mount an unlawful assault on Egypt in secret collusion with Israel and France.

Eden’s obsession was initially shared by his successor, Harold Macmillan, who thought that with out oil and its earnings neither Britain nor western Europe may survive. Macmillan needed to change tack when, as chancellor, he realised that the US, which opposed the motion, may undermine sterling, inflicting the British economic system to break down.

Fast forwarding to the assaults on New York and the Pentagon on September 11 2001, we discover a related obsession on the a part of Tony Blair. This time, nonetheless, the British are slavishly following the Americans, with the UK prime minister permitting himself to be persuaded by Dick Cheney, US vice-president, and different White House hawks that an act of worldwide terrorism reminiscent of 9/11 and chemical or nuclear weapons of mass destruction presumed to be held by Saddam Hussein in Iraq have been in some way linked conceptually, regardless of the absence of any proof. As Ashton observes, Blair “believed that the nexus of WMD and international terrorism would define the 21st century, a belief which remains unvindicated two decades later”.

Between the 2 historic landmarks of Suez and Iraq, different prime ministers discovered their passions engaged within the area. As Ashton demonstrates in usually amusing element, utilizing an array of sources from diaries and memoirs to accessible state papers, private prejudice and feeling quite than strategic calculation usually dominate prime ministerial motion.

For these reminiscent of Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, sufficiently old to have seen the horrors of Nazism, attitudes have been influenced by an attachment to Zionism and Israel. For different prime ministers, reminiscent of Macmillan, Alec Douglas Home and Edward Heath, “the belief that Britain’s future safety and wellbeing depended directly on developments in the Middle East was deeply ingrained”.

The chief who emerges greatest from a usually tawdry litany of dangerous choices based mostly on defective intelligence or flawed political judgments is John Major, who in 1990 got here to workplace with the least expertise of the Middle East within the midst of the Gulf disaster following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Though, like Macmillan, he had been chancellor, he knew little concerning the particulars of Gulf coverage or the federal government’s planning for struggle, having been saved at nighttime by Thatcher’s “increasingly dictatorial tendency, coupled with a lack of trust in senior ministers”.

Major prevented the post-imperial hubris of most up-to-date Downing Street lodgers. Blair’s “dodgy dossier” added to the mayhem in Iraq, whereas Cameron failed to steer parliament to intervene in Syria and “stumbled into difficulty” over Libya “without thinking far enough ahead” (with disastrous penalties not only for Libya however for contiguous international locations, reminiscent of Mali). Inspired by humanitarian concern, Major quietly performed by the UN guidelines. His legacy is the secure haven he secured for the Kurds towards Saddam’s genocidal regime in northern Iraq, which, whereas contested, survives as a small however vibrant hope for the area.

False Prophets: British Leaders’ Fateful Fascination with the Middle East from Suez to Syria by Nigel Ashton Atlantic Books, £20, 480 pages

Malise Ruthven is the creator of ‘Islam in the World’ (Oxford University Press)

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Source: www.ft.com

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