Book Review: The Twilight of the British Empire – British Intelligence and Counter-Subversion in the Middle East, 1948–63 by Chikara Hashimoto

By admin
As the

Middle-East
LOC

convulses in yet another bloody war, and with no end in sight to the barbarity, we’re all looking for a way to understand the horrors unfolding. So I went searching in the past. What set the seeds of

today
DATE

‘s conflict and was there any way to prevent it?

This is a dispassionate and, it has to be said, dry look at how the

British
NORP

intelligence agencies operated in the region during the aftermath of the

2nd
ORDINAL

world war. The books makes the compelling case that the

UK
GPE

‘s obsession with

Communism
NORP

blinded it to the realities of the threats which were developing. The paranoia about sharing the sources of intelligence meant that material could never really be trusted. And a neo-colonial attempt to impose "

British
NORP

" values of policing completely failed to account for local needs.

It’s obviously a deep scholarly work – but it rather presupposes a lot of knowledge about the area, it’s history and the ramifications of certain events. If you don’t know who

Nasser
PERSON

was, or why the

British
NORP

wanted to assassinate him, you won’t find the answers here.

At times, the book becomes little more than a list of dates and impenetrable acronyms.

Both of those issues make it hard to recommend to anyone who isn’t already intimately familiar with the history and the politics of the area.

Nevertheless, there are some choice passages which I think are worth highlighting.


Firstly
ORDINAL

, the book relies heavily on primary sources. It is sometimes startling to see things described so nakedly:

The principal object of our

Middle East
LOC

policy has recently been stated by Ministers to be the security of the oil on which

the United Kingdom
GPE

so greatly depends. The main instrument by which we hope to achieve our policy is

the Baghdad Pact
LAW

. Its value to

the United Kingdom
GPE

is primarily as a means of improving the Western position in the cold war and retaining the goodwill of

two
CARDINAL

of the oil producing countries, namely,

Iran
GPE

and

Iraq
GPE

.


The Chiefs of Staff Committee
ORG

,

13 July 1956
DATE

The hypocrisy can be staggering:

‘we should never descend to their levels’, it would be ‘profitable to borrow certain methods from our enemies’ and ‘we should not hesitate to adopt measures against them which would not be warranted in dealing with a

Civilized Power
ORG

’.


TNA
ORG

: PRO PREM8/1365,

1948
DATE

As ever, we see the

British
NORP

prefer "chums" and "good chaps" rather than professionalism. The cult of the amateur is in full force:

These intelligence networks at local initiatives were also sporadic and operated on an ad hoc and personal basis between officers at a senior level.


MI6
ORG

had only very ‘few

Arabists
NORP

’ to understand the nature of

the Middle East
LOC

throughout

the 1950s
DATE

.

It’s frustrating to see how events played out with grim inevitability:

This combined

MI5
ORG

and

GCHQ
ORG

operation … ‘enabled us to read the

Egyptian
NORP

cipher in

the London Embassy
ORG

throughout

the Suez Crisis’

EVENT


Aldrich
PERSON

,

Richard J.
PERSON

(ed.),

Espionage, Security and Intelligence
ORG

in

Britain
GPE

,

1945–1970
DATE

.

1998
DATE

And yet, the crisis was neither averted nor turned to the

UK
GPE

‘s advantage.

The book highlights repeated examples of

British
NORP

intelligence squandering every opportunity it had. There’s no great reveal here. The

UK
GPE

used to have power and influence in

the Middle-East
LOC

. It had the potential to help these states develop, and to try and bring about peace and prosperity. It failed. On every conceivable metric, it failed.

The history of

the Middle East
LOC

can feel impenetrably tangled. This book exposes some of that history, but is not aimed at the casual historian.