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book review

‘America’s Great Game’ by Hugh Wilford

A photograph from the September 1950 wedding of Archie and Selwa Roosevelt.
Archie Roosevelt papers,Library of Congress
A photograph from the September 1950 wedding of Archie and Selwa Roosevelt.

They were romantics and spies. They opposed Communism and supported Arab interests. They were susceptible to the American missionary impulse in foreign policy and the dreamy British view of the Middle East as a staging ground for heroics and adventure. They were the Arabists of America’s clandestine services and for decades their story has been shrouded in mystery — and misunderstanding.

Now comes Hugh Wilford, a specialist in US spy operations, armed with the notion that a clique of American intelligence operatives in the 1940s and ’50s believed that they “could control the fate of nations,’’ and his chronicle of their adventures and, more often, their misadventures, makes for compelling, illuminating reading.

One of the principal figures in this volume, Kermit Roosevelt Jr. — grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, chief of CIA covert operations in the Middle East and top operative in the successful 1953 effort to overthrow Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran — was so enamored of Rudyard Kipling that he was known by the nickname “Kim.’’ In his mind, and those of his cousin, Archie, and their compatriot, Miles A. Copeland Jr., the Middle East had endless appeal as “a place of ancient greatness and present-day decadence,’’ the strains of “Scheherazade’’ and the echoes of “Arabian Nights’’ creating an irresistible allure.

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Need we add that T.E. Lawrence gallops through these pages — and their reveries? Or that the battles of the Middle East (and the creation of the modern CIA) had their roots on the playing fields of Groton, where Endicott Peabody presided over a Victorian preserve of privilege, of religion and rectitude, of austerity and virility?

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Partial to the sentimental and the sensual, seduced by romantic imagery and exotic scenery, these men possessed an important insight, that, as Archie Roosevelt put it, Islam would be “a factor of increasing importance’’ in the region and that the United States had a rare opening to establish itself “as the great unselfish friend of the Moslems.’’

The result of all this was, unambiguously and unapologetically, an orientalist viewpoint that dominated the CIA through much of the century. “[A]s an aspiring orientalist,’’ Archie Roosevelt said, “I naturally have some sympathy with the Arabs.’’

This was a time, however, when the axis of dispute was as much about the Arab struggle against colonial powers and against Communism as against the Zionist movement. Later, of course, the principal Arab preoccupation would be the struggle against Israel as Jewish settlements, interests, and influence presented ever greater threats to the Arabs.

The CIA orientalists were shaped by traditional British outlooks and interests even as they tried to forge a new Middle East and create a rebellion against Soviet influence. This view was best expressed by the State Department’s Loy Henderson: “The Soviet Union seems to be determined to break down the structure which Great Britain has maintained so that Russian power and influence can sweep . . . across Iran and through the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean.’’

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Domestic political factors contributed to Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel, a major defeat for the CIA Arabists who, Wilford shrewdly points out, watched the very word that described them be transformed into a pejorative, tinged with anti-Semitism, rather than remain a label for a diplomat or specialist with expertise in the region. “It did not matter,’’ he writes, “that they were from Ivy League backgrounds, that they knew their field better than anyone else, or even that they held senior government posts.’’

As the Arabists established themselves in espionage, a vital transformation occurred in the outlook of the very Arabs they sought to assist and guide — or, more precisely, to manipulate. “Previously, Americans had been known in the Levant as missionaries, doctors, and professors,’’ Wilford wrote. “Now they were starting to be seen as spies.’’

That was critical to their eventual if not inevitable downfall. By supporting military rule and employing covert operations these Arabists undermined their own moral authority even as they justified coup conspiracies in Syria, Egypt, and Iran on moral grounds.

Wilford’s research will leave many readers astonished if not horrified at what was done in their names by men with phony identities stoking rivalries and revolts at great risks and great costs. Moreover, it will leave readers bewildered by some of the stupid things (like planting astrologists and witch doctors in the inner circles of Third World leaders, or employing hypnotism as part of their political activities) they considered but didn’t do.

Even so, Wilford credits these men for anticipating some of the basic elements of later peace initiatives. But he argues that “the failures and unintended consequences of CIA Arabism seem more significant” — specifically, fueling a tendency toward repressive regimes. Without them, an Arab Spring might not have been necessary, or might have been more successful. And one thing more: The profile of the United States in the region might have been far different, and far more influential.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.