America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford, Basic Books, 342pp. £18.99.
On the September day in 1947 when the CIA formally came into being, two cousins drove over the mountains from Beirut to meet a friend in Damascus. Archie Roosevelt was the spy agency’s new head of station in Lebanon; his cousin Kim was supposedly researching a book. Archie was toothy, short-sighted and identified with the “losers in history”. Kim, on the other hand, was debonair and stocky. “Pleasant and unassuming”, said his namesake Kim Philby, “the last person you would expect to be up to the neck in dirty tricks.” The man they went to see was Miles Copeland, a talented jazz trumpeter and Archie’s Falstaffian counterpart in Damascus. Under the guise of touring the crusader castles, the three men then headed northwards on a talent-spotting trip.
“Archie”, “Kim” and “Miles”, as they are throughout this book, nursed different ambitions. Archie saw parallels between the Arabs’ consensual way of politics and American democracy and wanted the United States to establish itself as “the great unselfish friend of the Moslems”. Kim venerated his father (who had known Kipling and Lawrence of Arabia) and his and Archie’s grandfather Theodore, whose presidential career owed itself to his heroics during a “crowded hour” in battle against the Spanish in Cuba in 1898. For Miles it was the “the prospect of engaging in a bit of clandestine hanky-panky with the justification that it was in the national interest”. Chiefly through these three, Hugh Wilford’s enjoyable new book tells the broader story of the decade-long but unsuccessful struggle to push American public opinion and foreign policy in a pro-Arab direction, and to reshape the Middle East to America’s advantage.
The Roosevelts’, and Copeland’s, hope of persuading the American public that pro-Zionism was an error, while establishing a new generation of western-educated and democratically-elected Arab leaders quickly foundered. Kim’s lobbying efforts at home got nowhere, while elections in Syria produced a government which, as Kim admitted in his book, was “not the most stable Damascus has seen.” America’s evangelism of democracy looked hypocritical given her refusal to acknowledge the views of the Arab majority in Palestine. By 1948 Kim had decided that the “basic human values of dignity, decency and individual liberty” might “be better preserved in one society, by a monarchy than by a self-styled ‘democracy’”.
So too had Miles and Archie, who worried that Soviet Russia could take advantage of the instability in Damascus. To give a colonel named Husni Zaim the pretext to seize power they manufactured a diplomatic incident by enticing the Syrians into burgling Copeland’s home, which resulted in a shoot-out. Zaim embarked on rapid modernisation. There was “only one way to start the Syrian people along the road to progress and democracy,” he told his American backers, thrashing his desk with his riding crop and adding, “with the whip”. But he lasted just 136 days in power.
In Egypt, Nasser looked a better bet. Identified as the lynchpin of the “Free Officers”, a military cabal scheming the downfall of the unpopular King Farouk (known to the CIA as the “Fat Fucker”, said Copeland), American diplomats discovered he liked hotdogs and films featuring Esther Williams. Kim, now working for the CIA’s covert action department, muscled in after the Free Officers seized power. In a tone which Wilford rightly remarks is redolent of Lawrence, he described Nasser as “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 neighbors – out of the barren wilderness.”
“Just get him to smile a bit more”, Kim asked of Nasser as the CIA offered the Egyptian leader large sums of cash and a package of political, managerial and public relations advice (“the latest gobbledegook of progressive government”, said a disenchanted diplomat sidelined by the spies, who were influenced by the sociologists Burnham and Pareto).
Weapons, not management voodoo, were what Nasser really wanted, but the CIA could not supply them because Kim’s parallel effort to convince Americans at home had failed. Wilford, who covered the CIA’s attempt to win the cold war through a range of cultural front organisations in The Mighty Wurlitzer, explains how, despite copious funding from the CIA, the anti-Zionist American Friends of the Middle East did not change public opinion enough for the Eisenhower administration to risk putting an arms-to-Nasser deal before Congress a year before the presidential election.
When Nasser turned to Moscow instead, the British – who had long voiced doubts about him – overtook the Roosevelts as the key influence on US foreign policy. They persuaded Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles to embark on an attempt “to reduce, and if possible eliminate, Nasser as a force”. Wilford recounts the series of failed attempts to do so in the closing chapters of the book, before noting how mundane pressures, like school fees, obliged each man to pursue more lucrative lines of work.
That the US government’s faith in Nasser lasted for so long resulted from Kim Roosevelt’s near-apotheosis following his role in the 1953 Mossadegh coup. This was his “crowded hour” which, like his grandfather, he was able to retell repeatedly to personal advantage. President Eisenhower himself noted that Kim’s reports “sounded more like a dime novel than historical facts”.
As Wilford admits at the outset, the secrecy of most CIA records and the unreliability of his three main subjects’ own accounts make the winnowing of truth from fiction very difficult. It would be a dull book that confined itself to certain facts but brilliantly – and through meticulous research – he justifies including the most colourful stories by supplying reassuring glosses on how far they should be believed. Thus he repeats Copeland’s claim to have played with Glenn Miller in New Orleans in September 1940 before rubbishing it with the observation that “the nearest the Glenn Miller orchestra got to New Orleans in the latter part of 1940 was Washington DC.”
It may not tell the whole truth, but as an attempt to penetrate and explain the mindsets of the Roosevelt cousins and Miles Copeland, this book is ingenious and unmatched.
© James Barr 2013