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America's Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East - Hugh Wilford

A little more than a week ago, I was watching CSPAN's BookTV, which featured the author Hugh Wilford speaking about this book. The subject matter --- which focused on the efforts of the CIA to shape and influence events in the Middle East from its inception in 1947 to the late 1950s --- I had, until then, knew nothing about. (The 1953 coup in Iran which deposed the popularly elected Mohammed Mossadegh and restored the Shah to power, I did know something about from years ago. But I didn't give it any further thought.) But I was so thoroughly impressed with Wilford's presentation that I bought the book the very next day.

The book begins by providing some background on the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, which goes back to the mid-1800s, when a number of Protestant groups travelled there to evangelize and establish cultural and educational institutions, such as the American University of Beirut, which was founded in 1866. Indeed, until the late 1930s, the full extent of American involvement in the Middle East was cultural and of a disinterested nature. Deep links had been established with the Arabs, who, during those years, constituted the majority population of the region. 

The coming of the Second World War and - after November 1942 (when U.S. forces embarked upon Operation Torch and landed in North Africa to help defeat Italo-German forces there) - the growing U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the Middle East, inclusive of the CIA's predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), would fill a postwar vacuum in the region due to the decline of British and French imperial power there. 

To illustrate the burgeoning U.S. economic, military, and diplomatic muscle in the Middle East during the 1940s, Wilford shares with the reader the personal histories of the 3 men who played key roles in the CIA in the region during the first decade of its existence. They were: Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt; Archibald "Archie" Roosevelt (both cousins and grandsons of former President Theodore Roosevelt); and Miles Copeland (a Southerner who arose from humble origins to become one of the most skilled and accomplished CIA operatives in the Middle East). Each man possessed unique talents (Archie Roosevelt was an intellectual and scholar of Arab culture and spoke several languages) and occupied center stage in the efforts of the Eisenhower Administration to forge a secure American sphere of influence in the Middle East. 

Considering the muddied state of affairs in the Middle East today, reading this book offered me a better understanding as to why things got that way over time. Both Roosevelts were Arabists, representative of a group of Americans who, prior to the Second World War, spent most of their lives in the Middle East, studying it, and fully immersing themselves in its culture. 

In the early years of the CIA involvement in the Middle East, U.S. policy was directed more toward promoting Arab democratic aspirations and removing all vestiges of European colonial power and influence in the region. Yet, though this was the avowed aim, it was soon replaced under Cold War pressures by the overriding imperative of the Eisenhower Administration to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East. This resulted in policies supporting pro-Western conservative/reactionary governments in the region and a departure from an earlier policy, which was supportive of Arab nationalist movements, as represented by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Indeed, the U.S. tried to make Nasser the key element in shaping a Middle East to their liking. But Nasser, who was genuinely interested in improving the welfare of his people, was unwilling to become compromised by Washington. At the same time, the book points out the growth and importance played during the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations by several CIA-fronted organizations in the U.S. (e.g., the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME)) that sought to promote pro-Arab sentiment among the general public as a way of creating more impartial Middle East policies from Washington. But, their effort ultimately proved futile for a host of reasons. In particular, the growing power of the Jewish (pro-Zionist) lobby, who did a much better job of promoting their interests than the Arabists. 

In summing up this review, I like to cite the following remarks from this book, which further illustrate why the U.S. is not widely regarded as an honest broker in the Middle East today.

“A combination of adverse factors --- Arab resistance, British duplicity, and the contradictions inherent in the American strategy itself --- would frustrate not only the CIA’s plan for a coup in Syria but also the other objectives outlined in Francis Russell’s crucial paper of August 4, 1956: the forging of an Arab front against revolutionary Egypt and the elimination of Nasser as a force in Middle Eastern politics.” --- p. 252.

“There were several reasons why Washington objected so strongly to the Suez Crisis: its potentially calamitous consequences for the Western position in the Middle East and the rest of the Third World; the fact that it distracted international attention from the Soviets’ brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising, which was unfolding at exactly the same time; and its no less unfortunate timing on the eve of a US presidential election. Perhaps the most deeply felt American grievance, though, was the element of deception involved. The British had been secretly planning this operation for weeks while talking to their American cousins about other measures for dealing with Nasser. So much, then, for the Special Relationship.” --- p. 259.

"Kim Roosevelt and his fellow Arabists had come to the Cold War Middle East hoping not only to prevent the Russians from taking it over but also to help the Arabs throw off the colonial domination of the French and British. The Suez crisis had seemed to mark a historic moment of opportunity for the Arabist vision, with the United States briefly emerging as the champion of Arab independence from European imperialism. It took less than a year, however, for that promise to be squandered. Thanks to a combination of [John] Foster Dulles' s [President Eisenhower's Secretary of State] rigid worldview and subtle pressure from both the British and conservative Arab leaders, the Eisenhower administration came down decisively on the side of the old imperial order --- and, ironically, the CIA became the main instrument of the new antinationalist policy. The Arabists did not even have the consolation of pulling off some spectacular coup, as they had in 1953. 
Indeed, the main effect of repeated attempts at regime change in Syria was to drive that country further into the arms of the communists." --- p. 276.

For anyone wanting to have a better understanding of postwar Middle East history, he/she will do him/herself a great service by reading this book.