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