Really excellent. It was so good to be steered through such a complex and important part of history by such a capable voice.
Lords of the Desert covers a huge range, in time and in geography; I was worried I would get lost. But the story is genuinely gripping, and the book extremely readable. In part because of the concise writing and wry humour, and in part due to the huge number of quotations from documents of the time – a time when officials spoke and wrote perhaps more candidly than now.
I imagine this is a must-have book for scholars of the period, but it is also a really good read for those of us with a more general interest.
This is a masterful account of Anglo-American relations in the Middle East. Contrary to common belief, that relationship during the Second World War and after it was bedevilled with suspicion, distrust and downright hatred. Both psrties were to blame.
Barr has organised his book as follows. There are four parts covering: 1941-8, 1947-53, 1953-58, and 1957-67. There are 27 chapters, an epilogue, illustrations, notes and a short bibliography.
The British government still has 100m worth of files about America that it does not wish to declassify. The author shows how from 1942 until 1971 Britain and the US were competitors and rivals in the Middle East. Strategic and commercial reasons governed our interests in the region. Oil and the vast profits it generated was a major factor that influenced almost everything we did after 1947.
For America the dominant interest was initially commercial. When America decided not to retreat into isolationism in 1946, as she had done in 1919, the rivalry took off. This superb account is the story of their struggle.
Barr traces the transfer of power lucidly in this fascinating book. It is replete with duplicity, faulty intelligence and weak diplomacy.
The post-war Anglo-American rivalry in the Middle East, which is the subject of James Barr’s excellent book, Lords of the Desert, is a fascinating sub-plot to the Cold War. The popular history of the era is one of the Special Relationship and close co-operation; the truth is much more complex and much more interesting.
The book starts in World War II, which marked both the US’s true arrival on the world stage as a great power, and the moment when Britain could no longer support its imperial commitments. The conflicting interests that dynamic brought, as the US supplanted Britain as the region’s pre-eminent power – sometimes willingly on both sides, frequently not – provides the drama of Barr’s epic story.
Lords of the Desert is in many ways a sequel to his excellent A Line in the Sand, which detailed the interwar Anglo-French rivalry in the Levant. Here, however, the scale is even more epic, stretching across the whole Middle East, from Egypt to Iran or southern Arabia, while similarly ranging across industrial competition (above all, oil), military conflict, soft power influence, the brutalities of internal Arabian politics, and much more.
The complex multi-layered narrative, however, is handled deftly and never becomes burdensome to the reader. That’s because Barr has stripped out much of what could easily be padding. He expects the reader to understand the context of the Cold War and of the Britain and America of the time and as such keeps the focus on the Middle East. International developments elsewhere and domestic politics merit only fleeting references. I’m sure this is the right decision: to do otherwise would muddy the storylines and distract from the heart of the action. As a result, the book weighs in at a very readable 350 pages where some authors could no doubt have written twice as much without adding anything.
It’s also because there’s plenty of real life and human interest, right down to some superb anecdotes (which I won’t mention to avoid spoilers): the people are fleshed out and made real. Barr’s research is once again first-class and expertly but unobtrusively deployed – his account of the 1953 Iranian coup is a particular highlight.
Lords of the Desert is of necessity episodic and while some of the episodes will no doubt be familiar to the reader – the establishment of Israel or the Suez Crisis, for example – viewing them through the prism of a regional and lasting Anglo-American antagonism casts a revealing new light. Other incidents were completely new to me but certainly worthy of their inclusion. The only event I thought might have been there but wasn’t, was the 1946 Iranian Crisis.
With the Middle East still so critical to global peace, politics and diplomacy, this isn’t just an excellent history of a time and place but also one that’s very relevant today. I recommend it highly.
There are plenty of books narrating the US involvement in the Middle East, or the British withdrawal from empire, and its consequences for the Middle East. But James Barr's work does far more than that; it juxtaposes the British and American experience in the region, the aspirations of the two governments, and their profoundly different reactions to the crises which repeatedly erupted in the Middle East. At heart, this was a dispute not so much about the endurance of the British colonial influence in the Middle East, but about how rapidly it should be dismantled, and whether retaining a British military presence in the area was a more effective approach for preventing Soviet incursions and growing Communist influence, or whether a hasty British withdrawal and the courtship of local Arab nationalists was a better way of insulating the region from Soviet influence. Neither Washington nor London were ultimately coherent in their responses, but clearly London was more constrained in the options it could explore, to the frustration of every British prime minister from Churchill onward. This is a superb book, written with verve and huge erudition. Buy it in any format; you will not regret the time spent reading it!
I was interested in looking at a preview before deciding whether to purchase this book for my research. However, the open-ended sign up to Simon & Schuster via kindle preview is not what I want. So I will have to wait until I can find a paper copy. Poor show S&S. Your marketing device has actively deterred me. Well done.