If you ask most Americans when the U.S. became heavily involved in the Persian Gulf, they might cite the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1981 or, more probably, the First Gulf War of 1990. Of course the roots of American entanglement in the region run much deeper, as W. Taylor Fain shows in his excellent new book American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). Beginning in the 18th century, the British began to do in the Gulf what the British did in those days: build their empire. British dominance in the region lasted as long as Britain did as a Great Power, that is, until about 1945. At that point, a power vacuum of sorts developed. What is perhaps most interesting about Fain’s book is that the U.S.–which had had strong commercial ties to several Gulf states for decades–was not terribly eager to get politically involved. Britain had significant military assets in the region; the U.S. did not. Britain needed the oil; the U.S. at that time did not. Britain wanted to blunt the forces of Arab nationalism; the U.S. had a rather more favorable attitude toward “self-determination.” The Brits did their best to play up the “special relationship,” but it just wasn’t “special” enough to get the U.S. involved in what seemed to be a plainly imperial endeavor. Americans just aren’t very good at imperialism–they have no stomach for it. In the end, it wasn’t the British who convinced the U.S. to take a strong hand in Gulf affairs, but the Soviets, or rather the fear of the Soviets. The strange cocktail of pan-Arab nationalism and international socialism convinced American policymakers that vital U.S. interests were being threatened in some very out-of-the-way places. Thus the U.S. developed new “special relationships” in the region, notably with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran–an odd group if ever there were one! So “special” were these ties that they eventually drew the U.S. into war and, recently, occupation. The British empire, so it is said, was built in a “fit of absent mindedness.” The American empire in the Gulf was built against better judgment.
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