Given the number of books and articles about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its controversial undertakings across the globe, it’s surprising that the US spy agency’s first encounters with the Arab and Muslim world have not garnered more attention. Hugh Wilford’s new account, America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, is an attempt to illuminate this dark and murky terrain.
With no end in sight for the Syrian crisis, recent allegations that President Barack Obama manipulated intelligence about the Assad regime’s use of sarin gas, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks sputtering along inconclusively, and the ever-so-slight thawing of relations between Iran and the United States, the publication of Wilford’s book could not be timelier.
“From the 1953 coup that deposed the nationalist prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq, down to more recent reports of secret prisons, waterboarding and drone warfare, the CIA has played a defining role in the troubled relationship between the United States and the Middle East,” Wilford writes. Wilford, a professor of history at California State University and the author of The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, an account of the agency’s secret funding of cultural groups in the Cold War, looks at the first decade after the Second World War, and the emergence of the CIA from its wartime predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Staffed mostly by young Ivy League men – it was a boys club through and through – the CIA became a central institution in the Cold War years as the US and Soviet Union jockeyed for influence in the Middle East and Africa.
The figures Wilford chronicles were sympathetic towards the Arab world, fired by a passion for the civilisations of the Middle East. They hoped to put Arab countries on a more equal footing with the West, even if their efforts mostly came to nought and arguably did more harm than good.
Writing about the world of intelligence can often be like grasping at straws. The very nature of covert operations means they are often shrouded in disinformation and denial. Wilford notes that much of the CIA’s records are unavailable, either destroyed or classified. Wilford diligently mines secondary sources, sundry archives and personal memoirs and papers, but his story is undermined in several instances when he has to resort to guesswork and inference.
Wilford builds his account around the exploits of three CIA officers whose intrigues took them from Cairo to Tehran in the late 1940s and 50s. Two of them, both cousins – Archie Roosevelt and Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt – were the grandsons of the US president Theodore Roosevelt. Tweedy and bespectacled, they were the spitting image of East Coast blue bloods. They certainly did not look like swashbuckling secret agents.
Archie was a talented linguist and scholar who served as Beirut station chief in the late 1940s. But his cousin Kim outdid him on the career ladder, becoming the director of CIA covert operations in the Middle East. He was the agency’s man in Tehran during the 1953 coup against Mosaddeq, the consequences of which resound to this day. The third Arabist of Wilford’s story is Miles Copeland, an Alabama-born trumpeter with a taste for adventure and intrigue. Of the trio, it was the unbuttoned Copeland who was the wild one. He loved to tell tall tales and left a trail of half-truths and evasions in his wake. (“Miles appears. Usual confusion,” Archie noted in an October 1947 diary entry.)
The Middle East these figures ventured into in the post-war years had been “exclusively a European and military preserve”, Wilford notes. Egypt had thrown off British rule, then the monarchy of King Farouk, who was deposed in a 1952 coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq had emerged from the Ottoman Empire, making the passage from protectorates and mandates under British and French control into fledgling nation-states. The Roosevelt cousins may have found European-style colonialism not to their liking, but Wilford argues that their Anglophilia predisposed them to a vision that was imperial in all but name. Indeed, the influence of Rudyard Kipling hung over them (Kermit’s nickname came from Kipling’s novel of the same name). Archie would later write: “When I speak of an intelligence officer, it is in the old-fashioned sense, perhaps best exemplified by Kipling’s British political officers in India.”
Wilford tracks their various itineraries and secret missions in Middle Eastern capitals. On the US domestic front, Kim was instrumental in setting up American Friends of the Middle East, an anti-Zionist group that was covertly funded by the CIA. Kim and Miles undertook backchannel diplomatic assignments in Egypt that Copeland dubbed “crypto-diplomacy”. (Such tactics, Wilford comments, “aggravated the situation, mixing up the messages that Washington was sending Cairo through regular diplomatic channels”.) Kermit hoped to cultivate secular, progressive Arabs and nationalists. Nasser’s charisma and leadership appealed – at least initially. To Copeland, Kim wrote, “Col Nas[se]r is the one man I have met who has impressed me with the feeling that he possesses the capabilities to lead the Near East – not only Egypt but through Egypt her Arab friends and neighbour – out of the barren wilderness. I am sure that provided with inspiring leadership the Near Eastern peoples are capable of a great Renaissance. Without it, present weaknesses and unreasoning national passions and despairs will further ravage the area”.
Yet Nasser could not so easily be bent to US ends. US secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who tended to see any kind of Arab nationalism that did not favour American interests as a hostile force, was a prime mover in the abrupt shifts and turns of the CIA Arabists’ mission. Nasser became a bête noire, as did other leaders who did not lean towards the US. The vision of the Roosevelts ran smack into the realpolitik of the Cold War. For all their high-minded beliefs, they promoted allegiances as quickly as they abandoned them.
Kim, in one of the CIA’s notorious operations of the era, connived with MI6 to oust Mosaddeq. Forsaking Nasser, the CIA manoeuvred to align conservative monarchies into an anti-Nasser bloc. For Archie, Hussein, the young Hashemite King of Jordan appeared as another would be saviour – “the finest, most truly motivated leader of the Arab world,” Roosevelt swooned.
From all this, it’s often hard to figure out whom – or what – the Arabists supported. It all became a kind of muddle. As Wilford frequently comments, the idea of a great game was real; the jockeying and endless shifts of position were all moves on a giant geostrategic chessboard. Wilford relies heavily on the notion, though his repetitions of the conceit are more annoying than convincing. More problematic for his book are the accounts of Copeland and company, which should be treated with scepticism. Wilford does his best to fill gaps in the record – much relevant documentation remains classified and probably will be forever – but he has to heavily qualify his own findings. Wilford suggests that Kim’s role in the 1953 coup, for example, which he recalled in his book Countercoup, was later played up for literary effect. “His actions were shaped, at least in part, by a cluster of ideas and emotions derived from Roosevelt family lore and earlier literary works.” Kermit Roosevelt, it seems, really did fancy himself as Kipling’s Kim. It was not just a nickname.
Miles Copeland presents even more of a challenge. Wilford makes considerable use of Copeland’s recollections, which the author himself admits are suspect. One minute, Copeland is conspiring to knock off Nasser; the next he’s in Cairo confessing everything to the general, the two chummily trading notes on assassination scenarios. Zany stuff, sure, but impossible to verify. Copeland and the CIA allegedly had a hand in the 1949 coup that brought Colonel Husni Al-Za’im to power in Syria, but his account of the operation is all over the place. Wilford tepidly comments there is “some historical evidence … of covert US plotting in Syria”. Maybe, but such evidence doesn’t tell us terribly much. It’s not Wilford’s fault that there are gaps in the record. His subject is important; but conjuring solid facts out of this shadowy world may be a trick no historian can quite pull off.
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.