Review of AMERICA’S GREAT GAME The CIA’s secret Arabists and the shaping of the modern Middle East by Hugh Wilford
Basic Books. £19.99. 978 0 465 01965 6
In 1947, two American intelligence operatives, Miles Copeland and Archie Roosevelt, flew from Washington to the Levant together to take up posts in, respectively, Damascus and Beirut. Copeland described the pair at that time as “me a New Orleans jazz musician and Tennessee riverboat gambler, he a member in good standing of what passes for nobility in America”. The two became friends and co-conspirators, who, together with Archie’s cousin Kim Roosevelt, did more to mould the modern Middle East than the so-called policy-makers in Washington. Hugh Wilford tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency’ s three musketeers in this absorbing account of romantics enchanted by Kiplingesque myths and the Lawrence of Arabia legend, who cynically harboured the self-contradictory ambition of democratizing the Arab world and Iran while arrogating all decisions to themselves.
When I moved to Beirut in 1972, the legacy of the CIA Arabists loomed large. Older journalists regaled us neophytes with tales of the spooks who, from the elegant confines of the bar at the Hotel Saint-Georges, rigged elections and overthrew civilian governments with aplomb. A few had witnessed Eleanor Brewer, the wife of the New York Times correspondent and CIA asset Sam Pope Brewer, appearing in the bar with her husband’s rival in journalism and espionage, Kim Philby. When Philby fled to his paymasters in Moscow, his old press colleagues seemed certain that the British Embassy had warned Philby to avoid a treason trial that would have embarrassed both MI6 and the CIA.
The spy yarns of that era found their way into Said Aburish’s masterly and amusing The St George Hotel Bar (1989): the CIA bag-man Wilbur Crane Eveland delivering cash-filled suitcases to the Lebanese President Camille Chamoun to fix the 1957 parliamentary elections so thoroughly that civil war erupted the next year; Agency operatives disbursing funds to Syrian exile politicians for coups that never quite came off; and plots by Copeland and the Roosevelt cousins, both of whom were grandsons of President Theodore, to overthrow their old friend, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in Egypt. Where Aburish relied on his own experience of those years, Wilford deftly employs documentary evidence to reveal Roosevelt-Copeland fingerprints on coups in Syria, the toppling of democrats in Iran, civil wars in Lebanon and Yemen and the financing of Muslim fundamentalists to oppose nationalists and leftists.
The CIA’s entanglement in Arab affairs pre-dated the Agency’s creation in 1950, stemming from the sabotage operations of its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, during the Second World War. Copeland and the Roosevelts had served with the OSS in wartime French North Africa, Egypt and Iraq, where they succumbed to notions of natives in need of their guidance to make their lands safe for America’s democracy and its oil companies.
When Copeland arrived in Damascus in 1947, Syria had an elected parliament and prime minister under a democratic constitution similar to that of the Third Republic in France. It did not take Copeland long to strike up a friendship with the Syrian Army’s chief of staff, the Kurdish Colonel Husni Zaim, and turn his thoughts to politics at a time when the civilian government was delaying a treaty to permit an American oil pipeline through its territory from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Lebanon. Roosevelt had been cultivating what he called the “young effendis” and Copeland the “right kind of leaders” to drag the Arab world away from Britain and France and into the American century. Zaim seemed perfect. As Wilford writes, he told Copeland that there was “only one way to start the Syrian people along the road to progress and democracy”, pausing to slash at his desk with a riding crop, “with the whip”.
Zaim seized power in 1949, the first in a succession of military coups that plagued the Arab world from then on. Three years later, Archie Roosevelt turned his attention to Iran, where together with his MI6 mentors, he deposed the popular prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddeq. Mosaddeq had offended the West by nationalizing Britain’s Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Roosevelt was an unlikely instrument to restore Shah Mohammed Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne. He never liked the Shah, writing when he met him a few years earlier that he was “a weak, washed-out looking young man”. Roosevelt had pleaded in 1946, through the American ambassador in Tehran, for the lives of the Kurdish leader, Qazi Mohammed, and Qazi’s brother, who had been condemned to death for secession. “Are you afraid I am going to have them shot?” the Shah asked Ambassador George V. Allen. “If so, you can rest your mind. I am not.” He did not shoot them. Instead, he ordered them hanged, in Archie’s words, “as soon as our ambassador had closed the door behind him”. Yet, between respecting Iran’s wish to control its resources and doing his duty to American imperium, he chose the latter.
The CIA, reviled in the Arab world these days for torturing terror suspects, fingering enemies for drone strikes and destabilizing governments, once actively supported Palestinian rights. The Roosevelts, using CIA funds, had sponsored the American Friends of the Middle East. This lobby of the great and good never achieved the clout of the American Israel Political Action Committee and dissolved itself when the source of its funding became public.
Hugh Wilford records in detail the CIA’s perversion of its ostensible objective, democracy for the Middle East. Yet he is generous to the old rogues Copeland (always a charmer) and the Roosevelts, attributing their actions as much to Orientalist fantasy as hard-headed politics. Aburish, who knew the “CIA’s Secret Arabists”, was more sceptical: Without CIA money and connivance we might have had a democratic Syria.
Without CIA financial support there would be no Muslim Brotherhood, llamas, Jamat Islamia, Osama bin Laden or any of the uncharming groups which we now identify as enemies and many of whom we associate with terrorism. The CIA accepted old-fashioned Islam, the discredited ulemas of Al Azhar and the unpopular and unelected mufti of Jordan, as the way of keeping the Middle East down.
William Eddy, the Lebanon-born son of American Protestant missionaries who worked successively for OSS, CIA and the Arabian American Oil Company, lamented, “It is still an open question whether an operator in OSS or CIA can ever again become a wholly honourable man. We deserve to go to hell when we die”. In a way, hell did claim them. On April 18, 1983, long after the period covered in this book, a suicide bomber blew up the American Embassy in Beirut. The CIA’s full complement of Middle East agents, who had been in conference at the embassy, died. The culprits were Muslim fundamentalists of the kind the CIA had encouraged during the Cold War. They were acting on behalf of Iran, whose secular and nationalist prime minister the CIA had removed thirty years before.