W. Taylor Fain: Britain's misunderstood role in the Persian Gulf

Roundup: Talking About History

[ W. Taylor Fain is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. His new book is American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region.]

During the United States’ first war against Saddam Hussein in 1991, I was a Department of State historian in Washington. The Office of the Historian was charged with providing historical background information on the Gulf crisis to Department policy makers, and one of the tasks I was given was to write a classified analysis and chronology of Iraq’s historical claims to Kuwait and the United States’ response to them. I had been a student of European security issues and arms control, and this was my introduction to Persian Gulf affairs. Baghdad’s periodically asserted claims to its neighbor were new to me, and I was fascinated to learn how deeply Great Britain had been involved in Kuwait and in the Persian Gulf since the era of the Napoleonic Wars. I was convinced that Britain’s imperial legacy in the Gulf played a role in shaping American policy in the area in ways that contemporary U.S. policy makers did not fully appreciate. This proved to be the germ of American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region.

Essentially, my research examines the origins of the United States’ current embroilment in the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula… and Iraq. What I have underscored is that it is impossible to understand America’s current predicament in the region without understanding the process of Britain’s imperial retreat from the area and the ways the United States attempted to come to grips with it. It was the inability of U.S. foreign policy makers to deal successfully with Britain’s retreat from the region, their inability to establish viable surrogates for British power in the area, or, alternatively, to recast or re-imagine American interests in the Gulf after 1971 that led the United States, by the end of the 1970s, to assume the large-scale, direct political and military obligations it has in the Gulf.

Some historians have argued, unpersuasively in my opinion, that Britain’s imperial moment in the Middle East ended with the 1956 Suez debacle. In fact, Britain continued to be a key actor in the region for another decade and a half. It clung like grim death to what the Foreign Office called the “hard kernel” of its Middle Eastern interests in the Persian Gulf and southern Arabia, until a combination of economic crisis and political turmoil at home forced Harold Wilson’s Labour government to relinquish its position in the Gulf region.

The Anglo-American relationship was particularly fraught in the Persian Gulf, and my research underscores the very different interests, priorities and perceptions of threat the United States and Britain defined for themselves in the Middle East. While the United States worked to integrate the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula into the larger architecture of its Cold War containment policy, Britain struggled to secure its more parochial economic and imperial interests in the region. The United States attempted to ensure the flow of reasonably priced Persian Gulf oil to the West in order to support the economies and governments of its European and Japanese allies during the Cold War. At the same time, officials in London attempted to safeguard the supply of Gulf oil produced by British companies and defend its military assets in the Gulf region and its colony in Aden. It worked to secure the lines of communication through the Gulf region to its allies and Commonwealth partners in Southeast Asia and Australia, and to defend the interests of its Gulf region client states.

It’s clear that both U.S. and British officials appreciated the close relationship between their interests in the Persian Gulf and throughout the Arabian Peninsula but comprehended that they were not identical. The British government had only mixed success in winning American approval for its policies in the Gulf region. Successive American administrations believed that a British presence in the Gulf could help secure Western interests, but they were uneasy about the efficacy of Britain’s military guarantee of Gulf security. They feared that heavy-handed British military action during a crisis could provoke a violent nationalist reaction against Western interests. This unease prevented American policy makers from giving Britain the unequivocal support it sought in the Gulf region. Frequently, British officials expressed their frustration and even anger over American reluctance to back their Gulf policies wholeheartedly.

So, the Anglo-American “special relationship” in the Persian Gulf region had very real limits. Sentiment alone wasn’t enough to keep U.S. and British policies aligned in the Middle East or elsewhere during the Cold War. The alliance functioned fully only where the interests of both members coincided fully. In Europe, both Washington and London certainly agreed on the need to contain Soviet power and to oppose communism. But elsewhere, for example in the Gulf region, U.S. and British policies moved out of step.

When I began my research, I expected to tell a rather straightforward story of the “changing of the guard” or “passing of the torch” from Britain to the United States in the Persian Gulf. What I found was something altogether more complicated and more interesting. I found a story of successive British governments’ determination not to cede Britain’s position in the Gulf until the last possible moment, and of the United States’ equal determination not to assume expensive new commitments.

What historians have left largely unaddressed is that while the United States and Britain pursued their interests in the Persian Gulf region, the peoples of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula worked just as hard to determine their own destinies. Deeply entrenched conflicts and ambitions shaped the environment in which U.S. and British statesmen attempted to work. Iraqi designs on Kuwait, Yemeni claims to Aden, and political competition between Baghdad and Cairo—unrelated to the Cold War era concerns of Washington and London—complicated the efforts of the U.S. and British governments to fashion workable foreign policies in the region. Frequently the smaller nations of the Persian Gulf and Arabia attempted to co-opt the power and influence of the United States and Britain for their own ends.

I hope that my study leaves the reader with an appreciation that the record of U.S.-British diplomacy in the Persian Gulf region is a complex and often troubled one. It’s marked by tension and littered with important failures as frequently as it is characterized by lasting successes. But it rewards close examination. It underscores the formidable difficulties even the closest allies confront in establishing cooperative policies, and I hope it illuminates an important chapter in the history of Western diplomacy on the Cold War’s periphery during the era of European imperial retreat.

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