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

Image of America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East
Release Date: 
January 17, 2014
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“. . . deep flaws of omission . . .”

With minor exceptions, most of America’s post-Vietnam interventions have been on behalf of Muslims, usually Muslim Arabs, often in an attempt to save them from themselves or the consequences of their actions. (Incidentally, although the Yom Kippur War is beyond the scope of this book, American support for Israel then probably prevented a catastrophe in the Arab world far beyond that of the Mongol invasions. Adjusted for population, Israeli losses during Yom Kippur were the equivalent of America suffering all its Vietname casualties within a week. Facing defeat and extermination, Israel would have taken the Arab world down with them: The mind quails at the thought of what a nuclear strike on the Aswan Dam would have done to Egypt.) Understandably, they have not been grateful.

Unfortunately, this important, engaging, and readable book also provides an inadequate explanation of the roots of this misguided foreign policy. It is the central thesis of Wilford’s book that, “The story of CIA involvement in the Arab world during the early years of the Cold War is therefore, in part at least, one of an internal struggle between two contradictory influences: the British imperial legacy and the American missionary tradition. If the latter, more moralistic, idealistic impulse shaped the Agency’s earlier operations, it was the former—comparatively pragmatic, realistic, even cynical—that eventually came to dominate, with the Iran coup acting as a sort of tipping point.”

America’s relationship with the Middle East, both in the longer term beyond the scope of Dr. Wilford’s book, and in the larger scope of the Cold War, calls the accuracy of this thesis into doubt. There are several possible approaches to the history of American involvement in the Middle East. Dr. Wilford has chosen the entirely legitimate device of a biographical approach. But there is a limit to what you can leave out.

America's Great Game is biographically centered upon a trio of romantic adventurers. Two were cousins, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt Jr. and Archie Roosevelt Jr., both grandsons of President Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom sought to make their own contributions to the family name. The third was an outsider to American elite society, Miles Copeland, a CIA officer who claims to have been a talented amateur musician, claims that must be viewed with some skepticism given his willingness to take liberties with the truth, whether for personal or operational reasons—although he is in fact the father of distinguished musician Stewart Copeland.

Although these men were different individuals, each also saw himself as playing a later-day Great Game, this one a contest between Americans, rather than British, and the Soviets, rather than Russians, for control of strategic resources. Rudyard Kipling, the British poet laureate and bard of the British Empire, was a Roosevelt family friend; Kermit Jr. chose his name Kim from Kipling’s novel of the same name. Indeed, as a child, Kim had regaled his tutor with stories about his childhood in Lahore, India—stories that were lifted from Kim.

And while America had a long history of religiously-inspired, humane benevolence in the Middle East, all three men would share in what would become the credo of mid-century America: that we were an exceptional nation, entitled to meddle in other nations’ politics and future.

It is not far-fetched to suspect that the tradition of muscular, generally Protestant, Christianity in which all these men were, to varying degrees, raised influenced their transitions from idealism to cynicism, sympathy with Arab nationalism to manipulation of Arabs and Persians—although of course the manipulation went the other way as well. Cynicism and idealism are not mutually exclusive, especially in the context of an overwhelming geopolitical reality of the early post-World War Two era.

That overwhelming reality was the Cold War and a sense of its importance is largely missing from America's Great Game. Referring to Kim Roosevelt’s own concerns of creating an Occidental-Oriental hostility in his 1949 book Arabs, Oil and History Wilford asks, “Just what was Kim Roosevelt thinking when he carried out the Iran coup operation of August 19, 1953?” an operation that looms large in the relationship of the Middle East to America.

He goes on to answer, “Yet [his writings do not convey] the sense of intense, ideological anticommunism detectable in statements by other US Middle East hands from the early Cold War. . . . Other factors, of a cultural and psychological rather than political nature, seem to have been more important in shaping Kim’s behavior toward Iran.”

The fact is that no matter what length you write at, you can’t say everything. But this is a profound flaw in America's Great Game that could have been resolved by several pages of explication about the Cold War.

Wilford is correct that cultural and psychological factors led members of America’s elite, such Kim Roosevelt, to believe that they could replace the old Anglo-French colonial regimes in the Middle East—first with something new, and then with something that would bear more than a passing resemblance to those old regimes.

All imperial powers, and the United States is one such (in that it takes it upon itself to intervene in the affairs of other nations) have elites that think they should rule over their inferiors; however, US foreign policy was shaped by the reality of the Cold War between itself and the Soviet Union, which was often expansionist and had been quite genuinely and terribly evil. CIA officers like Kim Roosevelt dreaded being asked questions like, “Who lost Iran?”

This was not simply because they feared malevolent clowns like Senator McCarthy, briefly mentioned in this book—although not for his chief accomplishment of giving responsible, adult anti-Communism a bad name—but because they felt a genuine, if muscularly Christian and thus culture-bound, sense of responsibility for the world and its civilizations.

A similar failure of omission attends to Wilford’s handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is a minor but important subtheme of this book. His attempts to distinguish anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism in the aftermath of the Holocaust are specious, given that he notes US journalist Dorothy Thompson’s objections to Jewish “acts of terrorism against the British [and] harsh treatment of Palestinian Arabs.”

Wilford writes sympathetically of Arab nationalism—even though Arab nationalists also attacked British troops—and never mentions the wave of expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews from Muslim countries. Indeed, the modern Arab world’s fixation on Israel as a distraction from the failure of its elites to create a workable future has done nothing to create an independent Palestine, only further distracted Arabs and their elites from creating workable societies.

These deep flaws of omission leave the reader with the distasteful sense that Professor Wilford wishes he, too, had been a player America's Great Game. Such emotions on the part of an author are entirely natural, even normal. But when the author does not understand them, acknowledge them, and control them, they can also deeply flaw the work as part of the quest for historical understanding writ large. And so it is here.