Hugh Wilford, America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, New York: Basic Books, 2013, 384 pp.
America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East recounts the early history of American intervention, intelligence and espionage in the Middle East during the decade after World War II. Professor Hugh Wilford of California State University, Long Beach, does this by focusing upon the biographies and actions of several American intelligence officers, who were literate and adventurous, thereby “reconstructing this now lost world of American Arabism.” The major figures described include the swashbuckling Miles Copeland, the scholarly William Eddy and the well-born grandsons of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt and Archie Roosevelt. Like the adventurous TR, who was the first U.S. president who traveled abroad, these men aspired to shape their world, not merely to react to it. They were young, romantic and colorful characters and qualified specialists in Arab history, language and culture. They also were American patriots with a sense of mission and a love of languages, travel and customs in different locales, combined with a love of books and a disdain for paperwork and bureaucratic procedures. William Eddy and both Roosevelts had met Arabs at an early age and were fascinated by them. For example, Eddy was born to Presbyterian missionaries in Lebanon and grew up speaking colloquial Arabic on the streets of Sidon. He served as the personal translator for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the latter met with King Ibn Saud in 1945. The Roosevelt boys met Hashemite princes at the home of Teddy Roosevelt and admired “Lawrence of Arabia.” Kermit adopted the name “Kim,” inspired by Rudyard Kipling, the British poet, adventurer and lover of India.
The focus upon these figures makes America’s Great Game highly readable and informative. Indeed, the protagonists, who served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, which later became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), regarded the Middle East as extremely important because of its oil fields and because its regimes and cultures were led by God-fearing rulers who would be crucial in halting the expansion of Soviet Communism in the postwar era. In fact, Wilford describes Kim Roosevelt’s intervention which successfully reinstated the Shah of Iran in 1953. The latter proved a staunch American ally until his overthrow in 1979. Like the State Department, these intelligence officers did not support the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 and were instrumental in setting up front groups to lobby Americans against Zionism and Israel. To his credit, Wilford refers to the private papers of some of the protagonists that show how in the late forties and the 1950s, the CIA worked to discredit Zionism and Israel and pay their detractors, among them Dorothy Thompson and Elmer Berger. Such efforts failed, as American support for Israel increased to the point that later on, after the heyday of these CIA “Arabists,” Israel became an ally of the United States during the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Both Kim Roosevelt and Miles Copeland tried to cultivate Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul-Nasser and Syrian colonel Husni Zaim during the early 1950s. They wanted to win them as U.S. allies against Soviet penetration of the Middle East, but failed to do so. Zaim’s rule was brief and Nasser joined the non-aligned movement which was ostensibly socialist and pro-Soviet. Neither showed any inclination toward democracy or any pro-Western sympathies, particularly after the Suez Crisis of 1956. Adventurous intervention notwithstanding, the conservative oil- producers remained in the American sphere, the nationalist leaders or “reformers,” such as Nasser did not. Eventually, post-Nasser Egypt turned to the U.S. in the 1970s, but not because of CIA interventionist activities in the style of the 1950s.
Wilford calls the men he describes “Arabists,” namely those who study, know and admire Arab culture, history and language. In fact, America’s Great Game follows Robert Kaplan’s study of U.S. diplomats in the Middle East, entitled The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite (New York: Free Press, 1993). However, Wilford’s work lacks Kaplan’s depth and nuance. Wilford does not display Kaplan’s willingness to ask larger questions. In fact, he only mentions Kaplan once in the text, referring to the term “Arabist” (64) and once, in an endnote (305). Wilford also does not relate to the views of leading Middle East scholars such as Fouad Ajami, Bernard Lewis or Elie Kedourie whose works would have contributed substantially to a discussion of the role of Western intelligence in the Middle East. The book lacks the benefit of Ajami’s analysis and assessment of Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism, qawmiyya, which dominated the Arab world in the 1950s and early 1960s. This ideology suffered a mortal blow with Israel’s victory over Nasser and his Arab coalition in 1967. In contrast, the author clearly is influenced by the popular and spurious ideas of Edward Said (Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978) and frequently criticizes the “Orientalism” of Westerners involved in Middle Eastern affairs when he really means prejudice or shallowness. Such name-calling does not address the major questions which should have been raised in a study of this timely subject. As far as the CIA’s anti-Zionist and anti-Israel actions in the 1940s and 1950s are concerned, Wilford does not refer to the helpful studies of Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1983) or Mitchell Bard, The Arab Lobby ( New York: Harper, 2010).
The fact that these sincere, well-educated and well-traveled persons with hands-on experience and a vast knowledge of the Middle East—its cultures and languages—failed in many of their interventions and intelligence assessments is worthy of much more sustained attention and deeper introspection and analysis. This is all the more important today when CIA and State Department officials who are not as well trained, worldly and experienced make similar or much greater blunders regarding Israel, Arab terrorism—including 9/11, radical Islam, the “Arab Spring,” the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fragmentation of Libya, the civil war in Syria, the increasing power of Iran and the collapse of Iraq to the detriment of American policy. Unfortunately, Wilford does not connect the dots and does not relate to the basic questions of recurring problems and patterns in American intelligence and policy-making or compare the successes of the earlier intelligence professionals, such as Iran, with the mistakes made by more recent CIA and State Department officials.. By not posing a set of questions or attempting to discuss the reasons for the errors based upon the outlook of the earlier “Arabists,” or their failures, Hugh Wilford succeeds as a story-teller, but not as a historian.