British Policy in Mesopotamia, 1903-1914
by Stuart A. Cohen
Reading, U.K.: Ithaca Press, 2008. 265 pp. $34.50.
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
As U.S. forces occupied Iraq in 2003, numerous historians scrambled to elucidate lessons from the British occupation of Mesopotamia during World War I. Cohen, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, has republished in paperback British Policy in Mesopotamia, a 1976 St. Antony's monograph, itself a version of his University of Oxford doctoral thesis.
Cohen provides an able if somewhat dry account of the formation of British policies toward Mesopotamia at the beginning of the twentieth century, a world in which oil had yet to play a significant role but rather where concerns over India's defense, German railroad ambitions, and a desire to expand commercial holdings dominated British interests.
The study analyzes competing diplomatic, strategic, and commercial concerns, each complicated by a bifurcation of policy input from the Foreign and India offices. The result is a useful primer on the development of British interests in the region in the decade immediately prior to Britain's occupation of the Ottoman provinces, which, with the defeat of the Ottoman forces, would formally become Iraq.
Cohen constructs his narrative from a range of British archival sources with a smattering of German works. Unfortunately, though, he has not revised or updated his account to incorporate new archival material, Arabic sources, or even secondary sources published in the last thirty years. His bibliography is a time-warp with no book more current than 1973. This in itself is not necessarily a fault; after Cohen wrote his original monograph, scholarship took a turn for the worse with the injection of postmodernism and other theoretical trends, the result of which has been few works of lasting historical value.
Nevertheless, Cohen's work could benefit by a historiographical review placing his research into the context of historical debate about the period. Instead, the only apparent acknowledgment that a generation has passed since he last published British Policy in Mesopotamia is a rather lackluster, one-page foreward by Harvard University historian E. Roger Owen, whose comments are so bland as to raise doubt that he even bothered to read the book. These foibles aside, Cohen's work stands the test of time and provides a handy reference for what remains an understudied period.
 See, for example, Michael Eisenstadt and Eric Mathewson, eds. U.S. Policy in Post-Saddam Iraq: Lessons from the British Experience (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2003).
Related Topics: History, Iraq | Michael Rubin | Spring 2009 MEQ
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