AMERICA’S GREAT GAME: THE CIA’S SECRET ARABISTS AND THE SHAPING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST
By Hugh Wilford
Basic Books, $39.99, 342 pages
Over lunch several years ago, as chaos descended on the Middle East, a retired CIA operations officer sadly mused about the diminished role of the United States in the region. When he was station chief of a nation in the area, he said, the defense minister routinely sent him a list of officers proposed for promotion. “I could put a tick mark against the names of men I approved, or cross out the ones to whom we objected,” he said. “Simple as that.” (Given that this was a private conversation, I am not identifying the officer, now deceased, nor the country to which he referred.)
The officer’s point was obvious: In the not-too-distant past, the United States had the capability to orchestrate events in a broad swath of the Middle East, and the principals through which policy was executed were a trio of CIA officers, two of whom did their tasks well, and a third about whom more shall be said later.
The skilled professionals were two grandsons of President Theodore Roosevelt — Kermit, known by his nickname “Kim,” and Archie, both adventurers of the first rank, seeped in the Arabic cultures and who rose to high rank in the early days of the CIA.
In hindsight, they embarked on a mission impossible. At the end of World War I in 1918, Britain and France imposed artificial borders throughout the region that hopelessly entangled rival sects. The British insistence on restoring a Jewish home in Israel, however noble in purpose, added further volatility to the tangled situation.
Too, there was a surge of Arab nationalism at the end of the World War II, personified by Gamal Abdel Nasser, a military officer who emerged as the replacement to the remarkably corrupt King Farouk (known jokingly to the CIA station in Cairo as “the FF,” initials for something you must go elsewhere to read).
President Eisenhower’s intended policy was stated in a 1953 national security directive, that U.S. policy should be “to guide the revolutionary and nationalistic pressures throughout the region into orderly channels not antagonistic to the West, rather than attempt to preserve the status quo.”
Given later events, it was ironic that the United States, through the CIA, gave ardent support to Nasser when he sought power. The relation soured when he lurched toward the USSR for economic aid and moved to nationalize the Suez Canal, a crucial link between the crumbling British Empire and India. Eisenhower in 1956 refused to support Britain and France when they tried to use military force to oust Nasser. Any gratitude Nasser might have felt for U.S. protection proved short-lived, however.
The Eisenhower White House’s major blunder in the area was its 1953 directive that the CIA support the overthrow of the demagogic Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq and put Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in power. (Kim Roosevelt was the main operative. Hugh Wilford overlooks other such principals as veteran officer John Waller, the go-to man in Washington during the coup.)
Given Mosaddeq’s perceived pro-Soviet tendencies, the coup was seemingly sensible at the time; yet it haunts U.S.-Iranian relations to the present day. (Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state, had shot down the idea a few years earlier.)
Mr. Wilford accurately depicts the other major CIA figure of the era, Miles Copeland, as a self-serving blowhard whose spate of postretirement books gave drastically conflicting accounts of events in which he was involved. My files contain a letter written by a retired officer who was asked to provide a blurb for Mr. Copeland’s “The Game Player.” He wrote that the book “documents the way Copeland used to gull the agency and gull the natives — not to mention the State Department and his oil company clients.” His “praise” is somewhat damning: “Among the intelligence officers of my generation at home and abroad, Miles Copeland is unquestionably the best trumpet player.” When chided for fabricating reports, Copeland retorted, “What is the difference between my fabricating reports and your letting your agents do it?”
The ultimate spoiler for U.S. policy was its support of the creation of Israel in 1948 — a decision the Arab world still vehemently opposes. For years, the CIA was the covert organizer of such pro-Arab groups as American Friends of the Middle East, intended to engender domestic support for rapport between the two camps, but American Jewish groups quickly shot down the campaign by labeling public supporters as anti-Semites. (One victim was the prominent liberal columnist Dorothy Thompson, a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who in 1934 ironically became the first American journalist to be expelled from Germany for criticizing Hitler.)
Despite the richness of his material, Mr. Wilford’s book is not an easy read. His sentences tend to wrap themselves into serpentine snarls, which often had me having to start reading again. Another shortcoming is all too common among people writing about 20th-century intelligence. The subtitle suggests that the CIA, on its own, worked in secret to shape American policy in an important region, but Mr. Wilford skirts around an important link in the chain of command; namely, that the agency was acting on White House orders to execute national security policy.
Was any different outcome possible? Headlines elsewhere in this newspaper today show that any quick resolution is unlikely. However, only the most biased of critics would assign blame to the CIA.
Veteran Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.