While the United States has been deeply involved in Iraq since the 1980s, the historiography of US-Iraqi relations remains woefully underdeveloped. Until very recently, historians interested in the origins of the US-Iraqi relationship have had very few scholarly resources to consult. In recent years, articles on various aspects of US policy toward Iraq during the 1950s and early 1960s have begun to appear in scholarly journals, but Bryan Gibson’s Sold Out? represents the first monograph based on recently declassified American archival sources.
Gibson begins his analysis with the 1958 coup that overthrew Iraq’s Western-backed Hashemite monarchy and replaced it with a nationalist regime led by General ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim. He shows that the coup forced the administration of Dwight Eisenhower to adjust its policies toward Arab nationalism. Prior to the coup, Washington viewed Arab nationalism as little more than a proxy for “International Communism,” and interpreted the fall of the Hashemites as gain for the Soviet Union. However, the US quickly came to realize that there were important differences between Arab nationalism and Communism, and that the former could serve as a check against the latter. This became increasingly clear as a power struggle emerged between Egypt’s Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, the foremost proponent of Arab nationalism, and Qasim. [End Page 157] In contrast to Washington’s initial fears that the new Iraqi government would join the United Arab Republic (the union of Egypt and Syria that began in February 1958), Qasim quickly made it clear that he would not subordinate Iraq’s sovereignty to any pan-Arab union, despite strong currents of opinion within Iraq favoring such a union. After Iraqi pan-Arabists attempted a coup against Qasim in December 1958, Qasim formed an alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party, and behind it the Soviet Union.
Qasim’s alliance with the Soviets led Washington to begin exploring ways that it could help Nasser “take over in Iraq” (p. 14). This new policy approach was codified in a 1958 National Security Council report (NSC 5820), which called for a new working relationship with Arab nationalism. Gibson shows how this regional strategy served as the basis for US policy toward Iraq for the next ten years. He cites an interview with a “high level CIA official” to argue that in early 1962 the White House directed CIA agent Archie Roosevelt to “develop a plan for overthrowing Qasim” (p. 45), but ultimately concludes that the “CIA [was] not behind the February 1963 Ba‘thist coup” as the “CIA’s plans to overthrow Qasim had not yet been finalized when the Ba’th Party seized power” (p. 200).
Gibson argues that while the Central Intelligence Agency was not behind the 1963 coup, the administration of John F. Kennedy did subsequently embrace the Ba‘th Party as an alternative to Communism. A rival faction of Arab nationalist officers overthrew the Ba‘th in November 1963, but Washington continued to follow the policy approach outlined by NSC 5820. This policy only began to change after the Ba‘th Party, reorganized under the leadership of Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and Saddam Husayn, retook power in July 1968. Whereas the first Ba‘thist regime had distanced itself from the Soviet Union and sought closer relations with the US, the second Baathist regime made a “swift tack towards the Soviet Union for military and economic assistance,” convincing the administration of Lyndon Johnson that “it had become a vehicle for Soviet encroachment on Iraq’s sovereignty” (p. 202).
The emergence of an Iraqi-Soviet alliance, led Washington to once again look for ways to undermine the government in Baghdad. Toward this end, the Nixon administration initiated a program of covert assistance to Iraqi Kurdish insurgent leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani. While Barzani had been leading an on-again, off-again insurgency since 1961, it was only after Iraq signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in April 1972, that the US joined with Israel and Iran in supplying Iraqi Kurds with...