Central Intelligence Arabists

How the CIA tilted toward the Arabs in the 1950s and '60s


America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford, Basic Books, 342 pages, $29.99

At a time when intelligence services have come to play an outsized role in American foreign policy, Hugh Wilford's informative and highly enjoyable book America's Great Game imparts some especially important lessons.

Wilford, a historian at Cal State Long Beach, explores the Central Intelligence Agency's actions in the Middle East in the 1950s and, to a far lesser extent, the 1960s. His focus is a group of officials who developed a yen for the Arab world, among them two of President Theodore Roosevelt's grandsons, Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt and Archie Roosevelt, as well as Miles Copeland, better known now as the father of rock drummer Stewart Copeland. This group's brief period of influence illustrates the limits of letting spies play a defining role in a country's diplomacy.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States greatly expanded its intelligence capabilities, establishing the CIA on the foundation of the wartime Office of Strategic Services. People such as the Roosevelts, elite figures who had engaged in intelligence work during the war and saw government service as a duty, became prime recruits for the new agency.

At the same time, despite their backgrounds and traditional Anglophile streak, the intelligence men focusing on the Arab world tended to favor the emerging nationalism and anti-colonialism there. Wilford's principal contention is that the CIA was far more sympathetic to Arab concerns and hostile to Israel than was Congress and, at times, the White House. This would serve the U.S. well in Egypt during the years after the 1952 coup against King Farouk, when the CIA developed a close relationship with the Free Officers Movement led by the country's new dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The Arabist tradition in the United States owed a lot to the educational and religious institutions founded by American missionaries in the Middle East in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The jewel in that effort's crown was the American University of Beirut, in which the families of several U.S. intelligence Arabists played a prominent role.

How strange this sounds to someone like me, who entered American University in the early 1980s. By that time the CIA was anathema to most Americans supportive of Arab political causes, including a large number of missionaries. They viewed the agency as a place of dirty tricks-one facilitating the American tilt toward Israel-and would have cringed to learn (or be reminded of) the missionary-intelligence nexus that an earlier generation of their compatriots had established in the region.

Most would also have been surprised to learn that, during the 1950s, the CIA funded an anti-Zionist organization called the American Friends of the Middle East. This group included anti-Zionist Jews from the American Council for Judaism, who, Wilford writes, "questioned Zionism's insistence on a distinct Jewish national identity, seeing it as a denial of their Americanism and an invitation to persecution by anti-Semites."

The CIA's Arabists were motivated by a combination of factors. They were afraid that support for Israel would alienate the countries of the Arab world, with its vast and valuable oil reserves. They felt it was necessary, as the Cold War gained momentum, to be on the right side of a region in transformation. And they had compassion for the plight of Palestinians.

The embrace of Nasser was both a high point for the Arabists' influence and the reason they were eventually marginalized. When he was named to head Egypt's Revolutionary Command Council in 1955, he had already been Egypt's effective leader for three years. In a honeymoon period from 1953 to 1955, the CIA held regular contacts with Nasser and his entourage, even arranging training for officers in Egypt's General Investigations Directorate, which helped the regime consolidate itself and repress its enemies.

In 1953 and 1954, Kim Roosevelt, who at the time headed the Near East and Africa division of the CIA, played a key role in mediating a dispute between Nasser and the British government over the Suez Canal. British troops were still deployed in the canal zone, and an agreement was reached for their withdrawal by June 1956. Antagonism against Britain was high in Egypt, and Nasser welcomed any mechanism that allowed him to come to an agreement without being seen to be dealing publicly with the British.

But by the mid-1950s, the limits of what Wilford calls the CIA's "crypto-diplomacy"-the secret contacts with the Arab world that the Eisenhower administration favored-were becoming increasingly evident. The CIA offered Nasser the advantage of a discreet channel to Washington, but the differing interests of the Egyptian leader and the Americans were becoming obvious. Most notably, Nasser did not share American revulsion toward the Soviet Union, even if he was willing to play Washington and Moscow against one another to Egypt's benefit.

What accelerated the rift between the administration and Nasser was the failed CIA mediation in a 1955 weapons deal. Nasser sought American arms for his military, but as Wilford notes, such an arrangement could have aroused opposition from Israel's friends in Congress, as well as from Britain, whose troops were still in the Suez Canal zone. Nasser, in turn, was not happy with U.S. legislation governing foreign military aid, which required him to sign a security pact with the United States. Kim Roosevelt proposed a compromise that included secret Pentagon money earmarked for military equipment, but Nasser did not want to publicly take American grant aid. When the deal unraveled, Nasser opted to purchase Soviet weapons, to be supplied by Czechoslovakia.

The Czech arms deal was a shock to the Eisenhower administration, particularly Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In Wilford's words, Dulles believed that "anything other than wholehearted support for the United States in its crusade against communist atheism was an offense against God." That may be overstating matters, but the fault lines were clear. The new affirmation in Egypt, Nasser's ambition to be a pan-Arab leader, and the Egyptians' unwillingness, having broken away from British rule, to fall under America's sway, made for an impossible marriage.

The CIA's Arabists should have realized that the mood in Egypt was incompatible with the one in the United States. America had become a global power and in its own way an empire, locked in a Cold War with another empire. Washington's expectations of foreign governments were driven by the pursuit of its superpower interests, and it often had the means to impose its preferences.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in Iran. In 1953, Kim Roosevelt organized a CIA-led coup to remove Prime Minister Mohammed Mossaddeq from office and restore Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to his throne. Mossaddeq had aroused Western antagonism by seizing control of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company after it had refused to share its profits with the Iranian government. To this day, the coup stands as the embodiment of American disregard for nationalist aspirations in the Middle East.

Neither Nasser nor those around him were blind. As they watched American behavior in their region, it was easy for them to conclude that the CIA, far from representing a "pro-Arab" outpost in the U.S. government, was merely a branch of the latest hegemonic Western government intending to have its way in the Middle East, just as the Europeans once had. The Americans were in search of a revolutionary Arab leader who could appeal to the region while being closely allied with them in the Cold War. Nasser, in contrast, wanted to be a non-aligned Arab leader who would advance Egypt's interests while playing to the Arab masses.

In the end, the CIA's Arabists were pushed aside after their hopes for Nasser were dashed. Within the agency, a pro-Israel camp led by James Jesus Angleton, the head of counterintelligence, gained the upper hand. By the late 1960s, the basis of the strategic relationship between the U.S. and Israel had been set and there was no looking back.

The lesson here is not so much that the agency Arabists were wrong. By the early 1970s, Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat would reverse course, expelling Russian advisers and becoming a close U.S. ally. There was much to be gained by improving relations with the Arab countries. But the initiative should not have been placed in the hands of an intelligence agency whose role had greatly expanded beyond its initial mandate: to gather and analyze information on behalf of more accountable policy makers.

Secret diplomacy can achieve a great deal. But the fact that both Washington and Cairo needed to resort to it should have prompted a reality check on both sides. Spies cannot substitute for diplomats. Allowing them to pursue political agendas, then as now, defeats the purpose of having a non-partisan intelligence agency

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  1. Our diplomats are not so good either these days. These problems are impossible to evaluate let alone solve because you never know the counter factual.

    Take Iran for instance. It is an article of faith that the US installing the Shah was a terrible mistake. Clearly, it didn’t work out well but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the best option available. We will never know what would have happened had we let the communists take over Iran. Things may have turned out worse. We will never know.

    Even if you assume installing the Shah was a mistake, installing Pinochet wasn’t. There we put in a pretty nasty right wing guy but saved the country from becoming Cuba. The same is true of South Korea. Syngman Rhee was a terrible leader, but he kept the South from going communist and South Korea is a pretty great place today.

    If you say “never intervene in other country’s affairs” you don’t get the Shah but you lose Rhee and Pinochet and the countries that resulted from their leadership. The mistake that the CIA and our government makes is in thinking they can do these things with any degree of certainty how they will turn out. Intervening is an incredibly risky and unpredictable thing. But so is doing nothing.

    1. Re: John,

      We will never know what would have happened had we let the communists take over Iran. Things may have turned out worse. We will never know.

      John, the Shah was an European-educated socialist who created and ran a tyrannical police state which jailed and tortured dissidents. He was also very fond of social engineering programs that created resentment among the Iranian population, never mind his crass displays of opulence in what was still a poor country.

      The moral of the story is that instead of trying good old diplomacy and free trade, which could’ve turned an ambivalent skeptic of the west (Mossadegh) into a friend, the policy of letting agent provocateurs run America’s foreign policy turned a whole nation to the hands of Islamic radicals.

      Whether history turned out better for Chile and South Korea or not, remember that the two Koreas were divided at the insistence of Stalin. Korea was the failure of American foreign policy which gave everything to Stalin. As for Chile, Pinochet was just as bad in economic policy as Allende at the very beginning of his regime, plus his murdering of thousands of dissidents did not help endear the US or Capitalism to the Chilean people.

      1. The moral of the story is that instead of trying good old diplomacy and free trade, which could’ve turned an ambivalent skeptic of the west (Mossadegh) into a friend

        You are living in fantasy land OM. Mossadegh was a communist and would have fallen under the Soviet Yoke. It would have turned Iran into Syria or Cuba.

        Again, we will never know. But you are kidding yourself if you think thta Mossadegh was this nice guy who could have been turned to ourside if only we would have traded enough with him.

        Maybe. Anything is possible. Hell, maybe the Soviets would have turned into nice guys if we had just been nicer to them. Both possibilities are pretty doubtful.

        You are making the same mistake Libertarians always make, they assume everyone else is a reasonable and amenable to rational persuasion as they are. They are not.

        And Korea was divided because the Russians had a huge Army in Northern China and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it being divided short of going to war over it.

        Again Mexican, you are imagining options that didn’t exist. You are as bad as the interventionists. You tell yourself the same sorts of fairy tails they tell themselves. You just tell them about the wonders of inaction.

        1. None of them were any of our business. Communists in those countries would have exposed communism’s faults sooner rather than hurt us. The lunatic in North Korea would not have had such a willing ideological opponent to justify his actions. The regime in Chile would have fallen by the same wayside as so many other South American dictators. An Iranian communist would have been overthrown by religious fanatics.

          And their governments were none of our business. It’s a very simple principle, easy to follow: leave other people alone unless they harm you.

          1. Maybe it wasn’t “our business”. That is a subjective contention on your part. What is not subjective is that treating it as “Not our business” and doing nothing has its downsides. Anti-interventionists like OM like to pretend otherwise.

        2. Mossadegh wasn’t a communist, although he was developing an uneasy alliance with the Tudeh Party.

          Places like Chile may be better off today because Pinochet was installed (obviously we can’t know how things would have turned out, and it’s a bit crass to minimize the thousands of people killed, tortured, and/or jailed), but that doesn’t justify the US government supporting him.

          1. Yes it does. Sometimes you have to take the best of the bad options available. If the US had supported him at the expense of someone better, that would be an issue. But they supported him because he was the only alternative to Castro style communism.

            To say we shouldn’t have supported him is to say that we should only support someone who meets our standards, which in many cases is the same thing as saying “we would just let real evil take over because we might get our hands dirty stopping it”.

  2. ” There you go again, blaming America for everythin’ ”


  3. elite figures who had engaged in intelligence work during the

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