Thinking Aloud: “America’s Great Game”

August 12, 2014 by Darius

The United States has long played a major role in the Middle East.  During the 1940s and 1950s, though, there was very serious internal debate over what that role should be.  I recently read America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East by historian Hugh Wilford.  America’s Great Game tells the story of the small group of CIA officers who advocated for a radically different US policy in the Middle East, one that favored relations with the Arab states over Zionism and supported new nationalist regimes like Nasser’s in Egypt over the old, colonial-era monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan.

Wilford tells the story of this group of CIA officers through the individual stories of the three most important Arabists in the CIA during this period.  The first was Kermit Roosevelt, called Kim, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt.  Kermit Roosevelt is most well-known today for being the US officer that spearheaded the 1953 coup against Iranian nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mosaddeq.  Beyond that, though, Kermit was the among the most influential CIA officers who dealt with the Arab world.  Domestically, he formed alliances with anti-Zionist leaders, both Jews and non-Jews, to engage the pro-Zionist forces in the US (notably AIPAC and its forerunners) in a battle for US public opinion towards the Middle East.

Kermit’s cousin Archie was the second of the three Arabist officers featured in America’s Great Game.  Like Kermit, Archie served in the OSS, the CIA’s precursor, during World War II.  Archie worked primarily in Lebanon and Syria, including multiple failed efforts to install a friendlier government in Syria.

The final officer of the Arabist triumvirate was Miles Copeland.  Unlike the Roosevelts, who were part of the East Coast elite, Copeland was a poor southerner whose remarkable intelligence landed him in the counterintelligence corps during World War II.  Copeland was an extraordinarily colorful character (his recollections of events in his memoirs are often embellished) who maintained a close personal friendship with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Ultimately, though, the Arabists in the CIA were defeated on all fronts.  Domestically, Kermit’s organization dedicated to spreading a pro-Arab, anti-Zionist message, the American Friends of the Middle East, was outmaneuvered and lost the battle for US public opinion.  US support for Israel only increased throughout the 1950s.  In the Middle East itself, largely due to interference from US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, US relations with Nasser soured.  In the end, the US cast its lot with the British-backed colonial regimes, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and fought bitter covert wars against Nasser and Arab nationalism.

Thus, in a sense, America’s Great Game is the story of a fundamentally different vision of US relations with the Middle East.  It is likely that, had they won out, the CIA Arabists’ pragmatic approach to the burgeoning forces of Arab nationalism could have resulted in more Arab states being friendly towards, if not allies of, the United States.

The book itself drags a bit and is not the most interesting read.  The historical research, though, is top-rate.  America’s Great Game tells a story that is very poorly known, which itself makes it   a must-read for anyone with a strong interest in the history of US foreign policy and the Middle East.

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