Commentary Magazine


America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East
By Hugh Wilford
Basic Books, 384 pages

Flying to Tehran in 1945 as the Cold War loomed, Archie Roosevelt—Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson—had an epiphany: “How can I go back from this to a university to study dead languages and old civilization? I am part of something new, something exciting.” Roosevelt was not alone. A group of young soldiers, scholars, and socialites caught the Middle East bug and decided to dedicate their lives to advancing American influence among the Arabs and in the Islamic world. The Central Intelligence Agency’s first Arabists were, with few exceptions, colorful elite scions, graduates of New England boarding schools and Ivy League colleges, scholars, and wartime spies. With exquisite detail drawn from personal papers, autobiographies, and secret correspondence, Hugh Wilford’s America’s Great Game follows many of them as they became entranced by the Middle East.

As true as the Washington adage “personnel is policy” is now, it was even more so in the heady days after World War II as the Office of Strategic Services gave rise to the CIA. It was a time when a few adventurous personalities dominated and shaped American intelligence in the region. Americans were naive, newcomers to a world replete with intrigue. British agents met their contacts in Cairo’s smoky coffee shops, but taxi drivers brought both Americans and locals to America’s “secret intelligence headquarters” in the basement of an ornate Cairo villa.

Wilford, who teaches history at the University of California, Long Beach, reminds us that there was a time when being called an “Orientalist” was something to aspire to. The word indicated mastery of Middle Eastern language, culture, and knowledge of history. Today, of course, it has become a dirty word thanks to the late Edward Said’s polemical assault on Western intellectuals interested in the East. This is ironic, because the CIA’s early Arabists sought to fully align U.S. policy with the Arab states they so admired, and in which they found little to condemn. Wilford’s narrative highlights the irony as he traces in considerable detail how the CIA’s Arabists worked not only to deny the Soviet Union a foothold in the Middle East, but also to undercut President Harry S. Truman’s support for Zionism. After Israel’s creation, the Arabists tried doggedly to diminish U.S. support for the Jewish state and replace it with warm ties between Arab states and the United States. Such lobbying occurred not only abroad, but also inside the United States and even within the Jewish community, as CIA Arabists, perhaps acting individually but with a nod and a wink from their superiors, participated in or personally supported with donations groups that sought actively to undermine the position of Israel in America.

Wilford adopts a neutral tone throughout his narrative, but there are many unspoken parallels between some of these early organizations and contemporary organizations making similar arguments today. In the 1940s, for example, the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) sought peace even at the sacrifice of Jewish statehood in Palestine. Just as J Street does today, it actively sought the support of those close to Arab states and lobbied for the United States to pursue policies that, if taken to their conclusion, would undercut Israel. And, just as J Street does, the ACJ consciously lent its podium to Arabists in order to enable them to argue that they were no anti-Semites, but merely anti-Zionists. Wilford uses labels carefully throughout his work and does not throw around the term “anti-Semitic” easily, but he does recognize that some of the animosity shown by at least some of the CIA’s Arabists toward Jewish Americans was motived by more than political and diplomatic disputes. ACJ was not alone. Private-sector Arabists, funded on the back of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) and its development of Saudi oil, also collaborated to support other organizations—the Committee for Justice and Peace, and American Friends of the Middle East, most prominently—whose purpose was to damage support for Israel and Zionism while simultaneously bolstering the Arab cause in America.

Though Israel’s creation was a blow, the CIA Arabists continued their work to tilt the Middle East into America’s camp. While the British lamented the 1952 coup ousting Egypt’s King Farouk because they feared where rampant Arab nationalism might lead, the CIA embraced Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s new military dictator. Indeed, Wilford speculates that some CIA agents may have had foreknowledge of the plot, and that the CIA helped former Nazi war criminals immigrate to Egypt to help Nasser establish a “repressive base.” It was not long before Nasser would turn on his former benefactors, however, as he cast his lot with Soviet advisers. The Arabist embrace of Nasser was neither the first nor last time the CIA confused ideological fantasy with reality.

Wilford also explores CIA support for the 1953 coup against Iranian premier Mohammed Mossadegh. Here, however, he is limited by his sources. Because the CIA shredded so much of the original documentation involving the coup, Wilford had to rely on Kermit Roosevelt’s own telling of the story in Countercoup. While Wilford acknowledges that Roosevelt and many others often romanticized their involvement and perhaps even took creative license at times, he does not explore the ramifications: How much damage did a limelight-seeking CIA operative do by taking credit for and perhaps exaggerating his role in an operation that today fuels so much anti-Americanism, even if, against the backdrop of Cold War power plays, it was both prudent and necessary? The same pattern continues to this day as officials leave government service and promote books that too often twist the truth to romanticize the individual.

Not every CIA officer believed the United States and the Arabs had common interests. Wilford touches upon the tireless efforts of CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, who also worked the Israel account, to increase cooperation between the CIA and Israel’s Mossad. While many analysts have suggested that the CIA’s Near Eastern Affairs division excluded the Israel desk because the agency’s chieftains were concerned that those sympathetic to Israel might leak secrets to the Israeli embassy, Wilford raises the intriguing possibility that Angleton liked the firewall because he feared CIA Arabists were more likely to betray U.S and Israeli secrets to Arab embassies. Even so, the two camps were not always at loggerheads. Indeed, Wilford explores how Kermit Roosevelt and Angleton worked together under Eisenhower to resolve the Arab–Israeli conflict, efforts that came to naught in large part because the Arab-nationalist flames that CIA Arabists once nurtured burned out of control.

That a book of this sort had never been written, Wilford writes, came as a surprise to him, because any traveler to the Arab world or Iran is instantly struck by the local obsession with the CIA and its alleged conspiracies. The absence of previous studies should be less a surprise than a condemnation of American academe, however, for it demonstrates just how tangential contemporary university scholarship has become. Diplomatic and political history gets short shrift in favor of trendier gender, environmental, and social history. The gatekeepers to academe warn graduate students that diplomatic history is at best already written and at worst irrelevant. With his fine achievement, Wilford proves them wrong.

About the Author

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author, most recently, of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes (Encounter).

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