FUTURE historians are going to have some diffi- culty in deciding at what point British Middle Eastern policy began to go wrong. The errors accumulated in ten years have been so varied and numerous that it will not be easy to trace the root of the evil. Certainly contemporaries can hardly see the wood for the fallen trees. The attempt to preserve a hegemony in the Middle East after the loss of the Indian Army on whose power it had been based; the 'special' position in respect of Arab countries which led the Foreign Office alternately to bully and appease them; the reliance on an older generation of Arab politicians who had once been our friends, but whose influ- ence over their own fellow-countrymen was diminishing; the failure to see that Arab nationalism would turn against any hegemony over the Middle East; the constant prejudice against Israel; these were fundamental mis- appraisals of the situation which were bound to lead straight to disaster. That they have done so rather more quickly than might have been expected was due to an incredible lack of skill in detailed diplomacy and the techniques of political warfare.
The melancholy story of the road to Suez is set out in a new Penguin Special (Middle East Crisis, by Guy Wint and Peter Calvocoressi, 2s.) which should be studied by anyone interested in the pr6blem. The vagaries of British policies during 1956 become all the more incomprehen- sible when it is realised that we had already dealt successfully with a Nasser in the shape of Dr. Moussadek at the time of the nationalisation of Persian oil. So far from being a scuttle, the policy of sit-tight-and-see-what-happens produced the eventual fall of Moussadek and a satisfactory agreement on the oil question. Why were these tactics not followed over Suez? Mr. Wint and Mr. Calvocoressi put it down to Sir Anthony Eden's personal conviction that Colonel Nasser was a Hitler who should not be appeased at any price, but the question is not entirely answered by this. The real problem was not the degree of Colonel Nasser's turpitude, but the best way to deal with him. It is perfectly possible to wish to oppose an aggressor, but to realise that it can more easily be done by political than by military means. Perhaps the deciding factor in the Suez imbroglio was an overestimate of the ability of Britain and France to go it alone in the world of 1956. The members of the Government were all men who formed their political ideas in the Thirties, but the history of this country has marched so far and fast since then that it would not be surprising if politicians failed to keep up.
What is to be done with the Middle East? Here the Penguin authors make some sensible sugges- tions. They see clearly that, if anything is to be saved from the melting-pot, Britain must nor- malise her relations with the Arab States. What do we want from the Middle East? We want to trade there, but, as has been repeatedly stated in the Spectator, for trading there is no need to have a series of client States. If Russian penetration is to be resisted, as it must be, this can only be done by avoiding any appearance of 'colonialism' in the area. In fact, Britain can hardly expect to play a large political role in the Middle East for some time to come. All we can do is to try to protest against any tendency on the part of the United States to repeat our past mistakes.
Then there is Israel. As the Penguin Special shows, in the past we have tried to appease the Arabs at Israel's expense—a manceuvre which was as useless as discreditable, in that no govern- ment in this country could possibly consent to the disappearance of Israel from the map, while nothing else would satisfy the Arabs. To bring stability into the Middle East it must be made quite clear to the Arabs that Israel is there to stay. In other words there must be a guarantee of Israel's frontiers by the great powers, and the fact must be faced that any such guarantee should if possible have the assent of the Soviet Union.
For the re-emergence of Russia as a Middle Eastern power is not something that can just be ignored. By geographical position, by political tradition and by its relatively clean record as far as Arab nationalists are concerned the USSR is singularly well placed to intervene in that part of the world. To keep it out is no longer possible; simply to let it go ahead with its penetration might be disastrous; the alternative is negotiation. In the Middle East, as has been proved in other areas of the world, the Soviet Union will be ready to negotiate if Russian leaders are convinced that the alternative is a risk of war. A direct negotia- tion between the West and Russia might end in an agreement for the neutralisation of the Middle East and a preservation of the status quo between Israel and her Arab neighbours. This would mean the abandonment of British and American bases in the area, but they are in some danger of being lost anyway. Mr. Wint and Mr. Calvocoressi also suggest an international air force stationed in Cyprus and controlled by the UN, but, as recent events have shown, the UN is not at the moment a very suitable body for the handling of complex questions. The present Gaza trouble—which seems likely to get worse rather than better— suggests that direct negotiation between the powers might provide better machinery for deal- ing with outstanding problems. There have been signs that the Russians might take part in such a negotiation : it was a pity perhaps to treat Mr. Shepilov's recent proposals merely as propaganda.
Not everyone will agree with the proposals put forward by Mr. Wint and Mr. Calvocoressi. They will hardly be greeted with shouts of joy in the Middle Eastern department of the Foreign Office. But we have suffered so long from profes- sional policy wizards that some fresh ideas from any source are very welcome. The Foreign Secre- tary should take time off to read these 140 pages. Who knows? He might even learn some common sense.