#Reviewing Imperial Crossroads

Imperial Crossroads: The Great Powers and the Persian Gulf. Edited by Jeffrey R. Macris and Saul Kelly. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 2012.

Imperial Crossroads, published by Naval Institute Press, covers over 500 years of Western maritime power in the Persian Gulf. Organized in chronological order, the essays explore the policies of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Americans, and lastly, the Indians and Chinese. Written by experts from a broad range of disciplines, Imperial Crossroads is an effort by Macris and Kelly to broaden the perspectives of great power involvement in the region.

The first two chapters, by Matthee and Lunsford, briefly cover the first 250 years of European involvement in the Gulf, under the Portuguese and Dutch, respectively. From the establishment of Portuguese bases beginning in 1507 to their gradual decline and downfall in 1650, Matthee does a great job at demolishing myths and misconceptions about the Portuguese presence in the Gulf. As in India and East Africa, the Portuguese had established dominance in the Gulf thanks mostly to their advanced weaponry and intimidation, but also through their grasp of maritime strategy. Lunsford chronicles the rise of the Dutch East India Company, the first of its kind in the world, and their involvement in the Persian Gulf. Like their predecessors, they aimed to control commerce, albeit with more subtle means than firepower; they simply outperformed the competition.

Unlike their predecessors, the British were not attracted to the region because of its markets, but rather as a buffer zone against Russian expansionism. The Great Game kicked off 160 years of British involvement and is covered in the ensuing five chapters.

In chapter three, for example, Robert Johnson describes the role of British soft power: trade, economic development, diplomacy, and intelligence. All, according to Johnson, were part of Britain’s strategy to prevent Russian encroachment in the Gulf—and by extension India. Johnson argues the strategy was problematic because it relied heavily on the vulnerable states of  Herat and Persia. The latter, having absorbed the former was later compelled to play the Russians and British to its own survival, thus rendering them an unreliable ally throughout the late-nineteenth century. Nevertheless, its soft-power policy proved pragmatic and cost-effective when one considers the option of occupying Persia (p.47).

In chapter four, Saul Kelly, describes the Trucial states (which went on to become the United Arab Emirates) and the role of British guardianship over Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman against their larger neighbors Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Kelly characterizes the British withdrawal in 1971 as a strategic blunder and an abandonment of long-standing commitment to their regional allies hastened by the exaggerated threat of anti-colonial movements. This exit from the region, Kelly claims, resulted in three large-scale wars which could have been avoided had the British simply accepted the offer from the Gulf states to pay for the basing of British troops (p.57).   

Chapter five, by Jeffrey R. Macris is the first chapter in the book to dive into how the American strategic planners adopted the Twin Pillars as policy. Ultimately, it resulted in an over-reliance on Saudi Arabia and Iran and a lost opportunity of gaining an American foothold in the region. In chapter six, Tore T. Petersen analyzes American policy under Nixon and his administration’s continuation of the Twin Pillars strategy and how the 1973 Saudi oil embargo simultaneously facilitated it and undermined it.

The Dhofar Rebellion (1962-1976) in Oman prolonged the British presence in the Gulf; albeit more discreetly. The British bases and troop deployments were gradually replaced by contract intelligence officers and SAS operators. Written by Clive Jones, chapter seven concentrates on British intelligence, special operations, and counterinsurgency operations in the province of Dhofar in Oman. His scholarship sheds light on how nuanced British policy could be no matter the rhetoric of strategic withdrawal. This new presence was of a different nature that involved contracted and loaned intelligence personnel until their Omani counterparts, in a gradual fashion, were able to assume control of all operations. These agents were able to carry out their duties without overriding strategic policy or Omani sovereignty. In the end, Britain had fulfilled its commitments by protecting Kuwaiti sovereignty against Iraq, promoting the formation of the United Arab Emirates, and ensuring that Oman remained under the Western sphere of influence all while accomplishing its withdrawal and reducing its visibility.

U.S. entry in the region could be described as haphazard under the Carter administration and laborious under Reagan. Frank L. Jones and Jason H. Campbell (chapters eight and nine, respectively), provide some much-needed insight into a misunderstood period of policy. Carter ascended to the presidency with a desire to build upon the gains made through the Nixon Doctrine. Enter PD/NSC-18. Subordinating the Middle East to the potential hotspots of Europe and Korea, PD/NSC-18 was crafted as a “lineal descendant” of NSC-68 and was based on the “1 ½ war” concept through a process Samuel P. Huntington described as “an exercise in confusion.” This policy held until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when it became apparent the Soviets had abandoned détente. In effect, Carter had begun to adopt a more hawkish approach that added another “½” war to the policy and ushered in the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF).   

The Reagan administration can be credited with having a more defined strategy, but it had difficulties of a different nature in the Gulf. Nevertheless, his administration moved forward with the RDF program that led to the creation of the Maritime Prepositioning Fleet and CENTCOM as well as a boost in defense spending. To cope with the loss of one pillar, Iran, Reagan doubled-down on America’s commitment to the other—Saudi Arabia—to the point of angering Israel with the sale of advanced military hardware. With Iran having gained the upper hand in its war against Iraq, thus worrying allies among the Gulf Cooperation Council, the sale of advanced hardware to Saudi Arabia was now extended to them along with American patronage.

The essays from Jones and Campbell present a nearly seamless evolution in policy from  Carter to Reagan. Carter certainly had difficulties adopting a policy in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment, but the guidelines his team formulated were later enhanced up by Reagan rather than repudiated. This included the continuing build-up of Saudi military capabilities begun under Carter. What is revelatory is Israeli meddling in American domestic politics to block the sale of F-15s and AWACS to the point of endangering American foreign policy in the Gulf. Nevertheless, Reagan prevailed, and the policy that held later contributed to the stunning victory of Operation Desert Storm.

The two remaining chapters, depart from the past and focus on future players in the region: India and China. In the case of India, Holmes and Yoshihara look into Nehru’s “broad doctrine” which they dub “India’s Monroe Doctrine.” Ben Simpfendorfer looks at China’s involvement in the Gulf, and he covers Chinese trade and its infrastructure projects in the region as a strategy to offset trade deficits attributed to that nation’s thirst for oil.

Surprisingly, Imperial Crossroads adds great new scholarship to the rich historiography of the region, and this collection of essays spanning 500 years deserves much credit, but it is far from flawless. Between chapters three and four, the break in coverage seems to exceed approximately 70 years. What links all these essays together and provides its transcendental theme across time and space is its advocacy for a permanence of Western maritime involvement. It is this level of scholarship that makes this book a valuable addition in the libraries of strategists.

Crossroads does a fine job at bringing together strategists, historians, diplomacy experts, and economists to create a multi-disciplinary volume on the region.

Crossroads does a fine job at bringing together strategists, historians, diplomacy experts, and economists to create a multi-disciplinary volume on the region. It provides insight on the history of relations between the global maritime powers and the region’s state actors through the lens of international realism and in doing so it removes many misconceptions and myths brought about by ideologically-tinged analyses. The authors eschew portraying Iran and Saudi Arabia as one-dimensional actors and instead they give us insight into how the two states capable of playing geopolitics just as well as any global power.  This has remained constant since the arrival of the Portuguese and has transcended the changes in ideology and transformations of regimes.

There are some contradictions among the authors particularly Kelly and Jones with regard to the claim made by Kelly that Britain had simply abandoned their allies in 1971 (p. 56). Jones describes in detail how the British were covertly providing assistance as advisors and special operators to their Omani allies during the Dhofar Rebellion, resulting in a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Furthermore, Kelly’s claim that the British withdrawal had led to three bloody wars (he does not specify which ones) waged by Saddam Hussein is questionable since Kelly claims Britain’s presence was based on its relationship with Oman and the Trucial States and not on their relations with Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or even Kuwait (p. 57).

Another problematic claim by Kelly is that concerning anti-colonial movements  

“…withdrawal from the Gulf was yet another step in Europe’s withdrawal from Asia and Africa after World War II. It has been represented, usually by way of excuse [emphasis added], as the inevitable response to the rise of Afro-Asian nationalism, though increasingly historical research reveals it to have been to the collapse of the Europeans’ will to defend their interests [emphasis added] in the wider world.” (p. 58)

The bloody and costly struggles of national liberation had taken the lives of tens of thousands of French, Dutch, and Portuguese lives in a vain attempt fight the tide of history. This collapse in the “will to defend their interests” can be exemplified by the moment when Portugal’s Estado Novo government was overthrown in 1974 by the Carnation Revolution. The revolution was a direct result of not knowing when to throw the towel, so to speak. To claim these nationalist movements were merely an excuse to withdrawal overlooks the very real threat they posed to governments in Europe itself.

There are a few other, albeit minor, shortcomings with this book. Although the authors do cover 500 years of great power involvement in the Gulf, they do so in an unequal manner. 400 years or so are condensed in the first 50 pages and the post-World War II era receives the heaviest amount of scholarship, detracting from the editors’ mission to “provide a different perspective in the broader subject of great power involvement with the states of the Persian Gulf” (p. x). Another issue is the book’s jump from Desert Storm—which is only briefly mentioned—to covering India’s rise in the region—which has not yet happened. The other drawback in this book is the lack of coverage of the social forces at work in the region. The only exception is the Jones essay on the Dhofar insurgency in which motivations of individual insurgents are examined briefly (p. 100).   

Imperial Crossroads is far from perfect but is an excellent reference for students of great power strategy. It makes for a valuable entry in the historiography of the Persian Gulf  and can be a great complement to books such as Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, which studies how oil has changed the societies within and the relationships between the Gulf states and oil consumers; and David Vine’s Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia, which studies the Anglo-American strategic and economic concerns that led to the base’s construction and the consequences that followed.

No single book can address all perspectives or answer all the questions but Imperial Crossroads goes further into the past than most others and allows us to better understand long-term trends the relations between great powers and the states in the Persian Gulf.

Carlo Valle is a veteran of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps. A recent graduate of history at Concordia University in Montreal, he is a regular contributor at Point of Decision.

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