NEA Files: Lot 55–D36

Introductory Paper on the Middle East Submitted Informally by the United Kingdom Representatives

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The area which we now call the Middle East was for thousands of years the cradle of civilisations and religions. It was the centre of gravity of the ancient world at a time when Europe did not count in the scheme of things. As man began to dominate the more rigorous conditions further north and further west, the centre of political, military and intellectual power shifted westward and the Middle East entered into a long period of decline and decay. But the fundamental geographical importance of the area continued to have its influence on Western European policy and strategy at recurrent intervals through the centuries. Today the world-wide extension of Western interests and responsibilities has again thrown into high relief the vital role which the Middle East has to play in world affairs. Moreover, the development of communications which has gone with the extension of Western interests into Asia and Africa has for the last one hundred and fifty years given an ever increasing strategic importance to this area.

The Middle East joins three continents and two oceans. Its fifty million or so inhabitants straddle the only possible communication routes between Europe, Asia, Africa and the Far East. The area has proved as vital for air and radio communication as for camel-caravans and steamships.

The administrative, economic and intellectual standards of the peoples of the Middle East have however unfortunately not risen commensurately with the grave international responsibilities which are now being thrust upon those peoples. Thus, not only is the area a vital prize for any Power interested in world influence or domination, but it is an area which cannot possibly defend itself against a Power with modern organisation and technical resources.

The importance of Greece and Turkey in the politico-military defence of the area is self-evident. They are, under modern conditions, its natural bastions to the North, just as the waters of the Mediterranean [Page 570] have constituted its natural defence from the West. It was only when and because we had lost command of the Mediterranean during the last war that the Italians and Germans were able to attack the Middle East overland across North Africa. Similarly our control of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea by sea and of the Sudan by land has acted as a shield to the whole area from the East and South, though it is becoming increasingly evident now that in addition Persia is going to be a necessary bastion if the area is going to be protected from the North-East.

If the Middle East has not become the cockpit of rival European Powers, this is due largely to the protective measures taken by Great Britain during the last century. It cannot be pretended that our original motives in going to the Middle East were particularly noble and altruistic. Such motives for political action were even rarer in those days than at present. We went to the Middle East in pursuit of trade with that area and to ensure that no other Great Power was astride our communications with India. From the moral standpoint, our intervention had two elements which distinguished it from most other attempts throughout history to dominate that area. In the first place, it was in our interest that the whole area should be stable and prosperous and that its transit routes should be unhampered. We did not undermine the existing civilisation or political institutions or tamper with the Moslem religion. Nor did we try to close the area against all comers. For instance, we let the French enter the Lebanon after the victory of 1918. Secondly, we have since the collapse of the old Turkish Empire in 1918 introduced into the succession States, including Egypt, our representative institutions and our conception of law, order and justice. These have in a comparatively short time given to the oppressed and misgoverned peoples of the Middle East a new ideal of justice and impartial administration which, even if it has seldom been fully attained by local Governments, has at least caused general improvement and set a standard by which current practice can be judged.

As regards Egypt in particular we originally occupied this country largely to secure our financial interests and those of other Western Powers. But in addition to achieving this object, we have made possible the establishment in the country of democratic and constitutional forms of government, with improved judicial and fiscal systems and with an administration considerably less corrupt than before. We have also provided the country with vast irrigation works and generally increased its wealth and prosperity although it must be acknowledged that this wealth is distributed still very unequally.

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The first World War emphasised with great clarity several of the essential factors of the Middle Eastern situation and of our influence there. The course of the war showed unmistakably that no major conflict can now take place without this area becoming heavily and vitally involved. We were at that time able to defeat the Turks and to keep open our communications with India and the Dominions because we were firmly established in Egypt, the Sudan and the Persian Gulf. But our political influence in Greece was a contributory factor and we received the support of the Arab population with several of whose rulers we had for some time been in friendly relations.

The reaction against us in Egypt immediately after the first World War was due partly to the rapid growth of Nationalist feeling, prompted largely by the ideas of European Liberalism which we had ourselves helped to propagate, partly to the restrictions inseparable from the conduct of war. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire set us a vast new problem in guiding the political and economic development of the Arab groups which had hitherto been loosely held together by the Turkish Army. It was from the start our general purpose to help the various parts of Arab territory towards the status of independent nations. We can be criticised for delays and mistakes and we had several bitter reminders, such as the Iraqi rebellion of 1920, of the strength of the feelings which we had let loose, but the pattern which gradually emerged was one of which we could on the whole be justly proud.

Persia and Afghanistan, though not astride our lines of communication with India and the Far East, hold nevertheless a vital position on their flank. Napoleon’s interest in these two countries at the height of his dreams of Eastern conquest affords sufficient proof of this. Above all—and Napoleon realised this too—Persia and Afghanistan represent a considerable barrier against Russian expansion towards South East Asia. Our first attempt to solve the problem of Russian penetration in Persia was the open establishment of British and Russian zones of influence, but this expedient resulted in the early years of this century in a conflict with the development of Persian national feeling. Since the first World War therefore we have consistently supported the complete integrity of Persia and have resisted any idea of interference by any power in Persian internal affairs. Quite apart from this strategic interest, we are now, since the beginning of the 20th century and the development of the Southern Persian oil fields, committed to a vital economic stake in the country. In Afghanistan, the traditional gateway to India, we attempted by the payment of subsidies and other measures to bolster up the native Government to resist Russian pressure. [Page 572] But a series of wars, culminating in the short-lived but disastrous Third Afghan War of 1919, finally persuaded us of the wisdom of adopting the same policy of non-intervention in Afghanistan as in Persia. In spite of periodical difficulties on the North West Frontier we have established cordial relations with the present rulers of the country.

The situation in 1939 was that we had created, or helped to create, fully independent States in Egypt and Iraq, in treaty relations with us, which gave us military facilities without derogation from national sovereignty. Transjordan was well on the way to being in the same position. Ibn Saud had driven out from Arabia the Hashemite dynasty who had been our chief supporters in the Arab Revolt, but he nevertheless regarded us as his best and closest friends and exerted a considerable influence in our favour throughout the Arab world. The small States and Sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf were in treaty relations with us, which left them complete freedom in their internal administration. In Egypt and Iraq we had a number of British officials and technicians working in the service of the local Governments, for whom they provided much-valued help and advice. We had developed important commercial interests throughout the area, but without using our political position to secure undue privileges for our commercial interests—as witness the important French, Belgian and Italian investments in Egypt and the vast development of American interest in Arabian oil.

So far, so good. But the fulfilment of our promises and obligations to these countries and the very real assistance we had given to creating Arab nationhood there were more than offset in Arab eyes and in those of our critics elsewhere by our inability to solve the problem of Palestine and by the continuance of French rule in Syria and the Lebanon. This is not the place for a disquisition on the Palestine question, which since the Balfour Declaration has been distorted beyond all recognition by Hitler’s unexampled massacre of the Jews and the consequent panic efforts of the survivors to escape en masse from Europe at all costs. It need only be said that we found ourselves confronted with two inconsistent sets of claims and obligations and after twenty years were practically no nearer our goal of an independent Palestine in which a Jewish National Home could exist without Arab hostility. Owing to the refusal of Arabs and Jews to join in any form of representative body, we had had to maintain a British administration on colonial lines. The influence of the Palestine difficulties was felt far outside the frontiers of Palestine itself and was undoing much of the good effect of our Middle Eastern policy in other countries. In Syria and the Lebanon after the defeat of France in 1940 we were held [Page 573] to some extent responsible for the continued subjection of these States to a discredited and helpless foreign Power merely because in the time of its strength it had been given a mandate over them which it could no longer effectively exercise. Nevertheless it was we who eventually arranged for the withdrawal of the French without loss of face and for the subsequent granting of independence to the two States.

The war naturally produced a new disturbing factor in the intensive German and Italian propaganda directed against our influence in all parts of the Middle East. It was in the nature of things much easier to attack us than it was for us to defend ourselves. The Axis propagandists did not have to think of the future and could undertake all kinds of obligations which they had no intention of carrying out. They aimed at disruption and subversion of the existing framework of society and could therefore make full use of the most unbalanced and extremist elements of the population.

Within a year of the outbreak of the war of 1939, the Libyan Desert became one of the main theatres of war and continued to be so until the Axis forces were finally driven from Africa. Moreover, a serious threat developed from the north. The launching of a pincer movement designed to meet on the Suez Canal was slowed down by the Greek campaign of 1940 and by our attempts to help Greek resistance in 1941. It was finally stopped by our resistance at Alamein, by the continued neutrality of the Turks, stiffened by our diplomatic activity and by supplies of war material, and finally by the exhaustion of the German drive into the Caucasus. The course of events demonstrated once more that in a world war the Middle East must at all costs be held. Had the Axis powers obtained control of the Suez Canal the way would have been open to them to join hands with Japan in the Pacific; to obtain vital supplies of oil and rubber; and to dominate the south shore of the Mediterranean. Had we not possessed a peace time base in Egypt, and subsidiary bases in other parts of the Middle East, and maintained our general political influence in this area and the Balkans, we should have been unable to prevent this from occurring.

The political position which we had established during the years between the Wars proved strong enough, in spite of Palestine and in spite of Axis propaganda, to allow us to deploy our forces without having to waste manpower and resources on guarding our communications or keeping order in Middle Eastern countries. The one exception to this state of affairs—the Rashid Ali revolt in Iraq—may justly be taken as one of those exceptions which go to prove the rule. This revolt had several causes, among the most immediate of which were the dictatorial ambitions of a few personalities and the skilful propaganda [Page 574] of the German representative. The movement failed to spread and was easily suppressed by a small British force. The reaction throughout Iraq after the restoration of constitutional government was intense and could be ascribed no less to guilty conscience than to realisation of the narrow margin by which the country had escaped coming under the influence of foreign Powers much less friendly to the aspirations of the Arabs than we had been.

In all other respects, the area was internally quiet, even including Palestine. Political evolution continued during the war and the immediate post-war period and resulted in the establishment of three new independent nations—Syria, Lebanon and Transjordan. It also resulted in the creation of the Arab League, a loose regional association providing for political consultation and economic, social and cultural cooperation. The foundation of the League was the culmination of a long process of political development.

The second World War has not perhaps brought about such dramatic changes in the Middle East as the first, but it has presented us with no less difficult and urgent problems. Apart from the running sore of Palestine, which became inflamed again as soon as the war was over, we have become involved in a dispute with Egypt turning in no small degree on Egyptian refusal to guarantee to the Sudanese freedom to choose whether or not they shall in the future continue to be associated with Egypt.

Meanwhile we had on the liberation of Greece to intervene in the country to prevent its being captured by the Communists and this intervention has lasted longer and involved us more deeply than we had originally expected. But as one looks back it becomes increasingly evident that but for our intervention, Greece would by now be a puppet state of Russia, the Soviet flag would be flying on the Mediterranean and the northern bastion of the Middle East would have been irretrievably breached; for if Greece had collapsed it is almost certain that Turkey would have followed suit. The development of the present bandit war in Northern Greece represents but another attempt by the Communists to carry the position. Until this threat is removed, there can be no hope of security. It has therefore been our policy to assist the Greek Government to restore order and this has unfortunately only added more heavily to our responsibilities. But now the United States Government have relieved us of our burden, and have in accordance with the Truman Declaration assumed a direct and welcome responsibility for positive assistance in rehabilitation and defence.

We are for our part fully determined to retain our influence throughout the area because we are convinced of its continuing strategical importance both as a communications centre and as a source of oil and [Page 575] because we believe it to be vital that the peoples of the Middle East should develop their future national existence as democratic and not as extremist countries. But if they are to do so they will continue to require assistance in social and economic fields. The low standard of living and the social disequilibrium of most of the Middle Eastern countries are bad in themselves and particularly dangerous as laying the countries open to the penetration of all kinds of extremist ideas. At the present time, political stability in these countries depends largely on a satisfactory solution of these difficulties. It is our desire to continue to render assistance to the full measure of our capacity.