AMERICA'S GREAT GAME: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East. By Hugh Wilford. Basic Books. 384 pages. $29.99.
How did the United States go from "disinterested benevolence" to "the Great Satan" in the eyes of many Middle East Arabs in less than 70 years?
American foreign policy has been especially ham-handed when it comes to the Middle East. Although numerous histories exist on American policy in the Middle East, Hugh Wilford has chosen an interesting subset of that history: The often shady activities of the Central Intelligence Agency there during the Truman and Eisenhower years.
Wilford, a professor of history at California State University, has authored two books on the CIA, "The Mighty Wurlitzer" and "The CIA, the British Left and the Cold War."
In "America's Great Game," he explores the evolution of policies that have caused the Middle East to become a geopolitical mess for the U.S. since before the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979. Wilford begins by introducing us to two grandsons of President Theodore Roosevelt, Kermit Jr., called Kim, and his cousin Archie Jr. The two cousins shared an attraction to Arab culture.
And both became involved in American intelligence in the Middle East. Their Arabist leanings were common at the time among Americans there. They were often joined in their endeavors by CIA officer Miles Copeland (father of Stewart, former drummer of the Police) whose love of intrigue and adventure was surpassed perhaps only by his telling of it. In 1947, Copeland became CIA station chief in Damascus, Syria, while Archie was CIA station chief in Beirut, Lebanon.
The British and French were the colonial powers in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The U.S. had virtually no presence in the Middle East. Mostly there were American Protestant missionaries who were seen as more or less benevolent, having for example created the American University in Beirut.
Wilford's background in the history of the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent agreement by the British and French to divide the majority of the Middle East between them is very sketchy. A more detailed telling would have been useful. The character of T.E. Lawrence appears mostly as an inspiring figure to the Arabists in general, and to Kim and Archie Roosevelt in particular.
Throughout World War II, the U.S. maintained good relations with the Arab world. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was focused on economic relations, particularly oil. Whereas the Zionist movement applied pressure to the White House and other corridors of power, FDR avoided taking a pro-Zionist stance, largely on the advice of his Middle East specialists in the State Department who understood that it would alienate the Arab states.
Things changed dramatically when Harry S. Truman took office after FDR's death. Truman took a decidedly pro-Zionist stance. As Truman was quoted, "I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs (among) my constituents." He also later complained of the "unwarranted interference of the Zionists" and the pressure put upon him. However, Truman did not like or trust the East Coast Ivy Leaguers who were providing pro-Arab, anti-Zionist advice. On the eve of Yom Kippur 1946, Truman announced his public support for a Jewish state. And in May 1948, Truman announced the formal recognition of the state of Israel by the U.S.
Meanwhile, in 1947, Truman created the CIA via the National Security Act of 1947. A National Security Council Directive (NSC 10/2) gave the CIA almost unfettered power to carry out covert actions abroad.
The "Great Game" began in earnest with the advent of the Truman Doctrine and the beginning of the Cold War as American paranoia about an expansionist Soviet Union became an all-consuming policy. The U.S. sought Arab leaders, who it thought could be controlled and who would not do business with the Soviets. Control of oil was always a central strategic need as well.
The CIA was instrumental in the 1949 coup in Syria. They were also central to the Iranian coup of 1953, when Mohammed Mosaddeq was overthrown in favor of the young pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. There were plans hatched for possible other coups and assassinations.
Egypt's president, Gamal Nasser, was a prime example of these as he was supported by the U.S., in his rise for power. The U.S. saw him as potentially a pan-Arab leader. But Nasser did not fold to colonialist and imperialist influences. Nasser proved to be a nationalist and his own man. When the U.S. realized that it could not control him, it began looking at ways to get rid of him, something which did not succeed. The U.S. under Truman and Eisenhower changed the course of American history by becoming entrenched in other countries' internal affairs, creating essentially an imperialist power.
The author, like many who write about CIA activities without the endorsement of the agency, found access to material difficult because many CIA records have been destroyed or remain classified. Thus, Wilford perhaps leaned a bit too much on the personal papers of the three primary figures in his book: the Roosevelt cousins, and Miles Copeland. Copeland, in particular, is considered to be a dubious reporter of the facts at best. Still, despite these limitations, the book is well researched and Wilford has made use of many other sources, as documented in 25 pages of endnotes.
There is much to be learned from "America's Great Game" about what the CIA has done undercover that has affected American geopolitics to this day. The book also gives a greater understanding of how we got to where we are at present in the Middle East. There are some excellent lessons to be learned about the consequences of bad policy and covert action. These are not historical inevitabilities, and thus we must ponder whether there were routes that would brought us to a better place than where we are today.
Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.