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Hugh Wilford, America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East. New York: Basic Books, 2013. 299pp. $29.99.

Most Americans, Westerners, and Muslims nowadays tend to assume that U.S. foreign policies toward the Middle East in the post-1945 era were focused unflaggingly on the suppression of indigenous Arab nationalist movements and on support for the creation of the Zionist state of Israel. This widespread perception is not only grossly simplistic but also largely incorrect for the 1940s and early 1950s, as Hugh Wilford— a historian at California State University, Long Beach, specializing in Cold War–era intelligence activities—documents in his latest book. During that era, as in earlier decades, influential elements within the U.S. foreign policy establishment openly promoted the decolonization of the region, even at the risk of alienating its wartime allies Great Britain and France. These U.S. officials were both sympathetic to and often covertly supportive of a new generation of local nationalist leaders and movements [End Page 179] that were agitating for Arab independence and self-determination. The pro-Arab or “Arabist” circles within the government thus became increasingly concerned about the potentially negative regional impact of Israeli statehood on future Arab-American relations, postwar Soviet efforts to exploit Arab grievances, and the growing influence of a network of domestic pro-Zionist organizations.

Wilford’s stated goal in the book is to reconstruct this “now lost world of secret American Arabism” (p. xx) by focusing on the postwar activities of certain leading Arabists who served as operatives for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other U.S. intelligence services. The individuals Wilford has selected to illustrate and exemplify the agendas and activities of this milieu are the cousins Archibald (Archie) Roosevelt, Jr., and Kermit (Kim) Roosevelt, Jr., two scions of the influential Roosevelt family; and Miles Copeland, Jr., a talented Southerner from a more modest social background. As Wilford rightly emphasizes, the U.S. officials responsible for launching many wartime and early postwar covert operations in the Middle East were “personally very sympathetic toward Arabs and Muslims” (p. xix), having resided in or at least studied the region and developed close personal relations with leading Arabs, ranging from nationalist “young Effendis” (the term used approvingly by Kermit Roosevelt) to Hashemite princes. Their sympathy for Arabs and Arab nationalism was influenced not only by their recognition of America’s own anti-colonial past, but also by the long prior history of educational and humanitarian work carried out in the Middle East by Protestant missionaries in a spirit of “disinterested benevolence” (p. 21). Yet these men were likewise inspired by the romantic image of British imperial adventurers operating in India and the Muslim world, as depicted in works by Rudyard Kipling and epitomized by the extraordinary real-life career of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”).

Persistent tension between the influences exerted by the “moralistic, idealistic” U.S. missionary tradition and the “relatively pragmatic, realistic, even cynical” adventurist tradition (p. xxi) resulted in inconsistent behavior. After first covertly supporting younger nationalist military leaders in Syria (the ill-fated Husni al-Za’im) and Egypt (Gamal Abdel Nasser) in the spirit of anti-colonialism and modernization, as per the recommendations in Kermit Roosevelt’s own 1949 book Arabs, Oil, and History, these CIA Arabists were soon compelled to change direction, if only reluctantly. The first indication of this came when Roosevelt, at the very time he and Copeland were promoting, befriending, and covertly supporting Nasser, actively participated in the CIA-backed 1953 coup against nationalist leader Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran. Shortly thereafter, disputes with Nasser over U.S. funding caused the increasingly independent Egyptian leader to turn to the Soviet Union for military aid, a step that led over time to the abandonment of U.S. support for his regime. Although the United States publicly opposed the joint British-French-Israeli military action against Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis, U.S. officials soon afterward began plotting unsuccessfully to block the geopolitical initiatives of Nasser and to overthrow the Ba’thist-dominated nationalist regime in Syria, as well as to forge...

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