A Special Relationship?

Then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and US President Lyndon B. Johnson discussing NATO in 1966.

Then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and US President Lyndon B. Johnson discussing NATO in 1966.

Perhaps one of the greatest misperceptions about Anglo-American relations with respect to the Gulf region during the Cold War is that both nations were united by their “special relationship.” The reality is that both nations saw events from completely different points of view on nearly every level. For Britain, almost every event was perceived, assessed, and responded to in terms of its political, military, and strategic interests in the Gulf.

In contrast, the US viewed events strictly in terms of its geo-strategic competition with the Soviet Union. While the US and Britain saw eye-to-eye with respect to the Cold War in other theaters of competition—most notably in Europe and East Asia—in the Gulf, where Britain’s longstanding financial and strategic interests in the region’s considerable oil wealth, the two sides could not have been further apart.

In recent weeks, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library has declassified a series of documents that perfectly encapsulates the Anglo–American divide with respect to Iraq. In September 1964, US and British officials, recognizing the growing divide between their respective policies, met in Washington for talks on both countrys' policies toward the Middle East.

[inset_left]In recent weeks, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library has declassified a series of documents that perfectly encapsulate the Anglo–American divide with respect to Iraq.[/inset_left]

Representing the US was Rodger Davies, the director of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and on the British side was John E. Killick, the British Embassy in Washington’s counselor. Though the details of the talks are not needed here, what was significant was that the British and US both agreed on the overall objectives but disagreed on the means of achieving them. Indeed, Davies openly admitted to Killick that “some courses of action proposed by London [have] caused concern [in Washington] since they could only lead to a confrontation with the United Arab Republic (UAR) [Egypt] and Arab nationalism in situations where it [was] doubtful that the West had the capabilities to come out on top.” On the Cold War, Davies pointed to a US intelligence estimate on the Soviet Union’s objectives in the region.

The estimate concluded that US policy was based on an assessment that in the Arab world Cairo would always have more influence than Moscow, that any losses to their position throughout the area occasioned by Nasser's Arab nationalist drive would be essentially peripheral . . . and that basic interests in the Near East would be maintained.

Davies argued that forcing a major confrontation with the UAR would threaten American and British interests and could lead to establishment of a communist puppet state, which would be a problem of a “much greater magnitude.” Therefore, the best track from a US perspective was to “improve our capability to influence trends in the UAR . . . by increasing our aid to that country.” In response to this, British officials sought to convince the US that the policies of both with respect to the Middle East were aligned. However, recently declassified documents reveal that this was not in fact the case. While British officials went out of their way to emphasize the alignment of US–UK policies, in fact the British were actively working against US interests, particularly with respect to Iraq.

In mid-October 1964, US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Strong, who had been present during the talks, sent letters to Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Phillips Talbot and Robert Komer, the US National Security Council’s chief Middle East advisor—letters that outlined a case that completely undermined the very integrity of British policy. Strong pointed out that since the the consultations in Washington, British Embassy officials had been “busily reassuring” the embassy of their agreement with US policy, though Strong questioned their sincerity in his letter to Talbot, concluding instead that “games are going on.” To support his conclusion, Strong pointed to a secret approach by the MI6 station chief in Baghdad to his American counterpart at the US Embassy, where the British official sought “to enlist US support in a campaign against Nasser and UAR–Iraqi unity.”

Apparently, Britain’s Conservative government had decided they “could not live with Nasser and must do something about him, and they could not stand UAR–Iraqi unity because of their interests in the Gulf.” Further, the British official revealed that his government “intended to work with Iran against Nasser and the Aref regime.” In response, the station chief gave “a strong negative answer,” arguing that this was a “wrong” approach and that neither the British nor the Iranians had the assets to pull this operation off successfully. A few weeks later, the Arif regime managed to foil an attempted coup.

In his letter to Komer, Strong was much more explicit, stating that he “deeply doubted” the sincerity of the British Embassy’s ‘charm offensive’ and claims of how “in tune” Anglo–American policies were toward Iraq, because there were “too many indicators otherwise.” Indeed, he believed the British were engaged in a “fully covert” program, possibly in concert with Iran and Israel, “with one policy being followed on the surface and the other through the clandestine mechanism.” Indeed, this conclusion was not beyond the realm of possibility, since it was precisely how the British were behaving in Yemen.

The recently declassified documents make clear that with respect to Iraq, and many other issues in the Middle East during the Cold War, the United States and Britain were at odds with each other in spite of the special relationship. In fact, the new documents make clear that Britain purposely sought to deceive its American allies with respect to its approach to Iraq. In the end, because the US saw the region only in terms of the Cold War, while Britain perceived it almost entirely with respect to its ongoing conflict with Nasser, ensured that the Anglo–American special relationship would never actually take hold with respect to the Middle East.

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