The Central Intelligence Agency's reputation in the Middle East today has been marred by waterboarding and drone strikes, yet in its earliest years the agency was actually the region's staunchest western ally. In America's Great Game, celebrated intelligence historian Hugh Wilford reveals how three colorful CIA operatives—Kermit and Archie Roosevelt, and maverick covert-ops expert Miles Copeland—attempted, futilely, to bring the U.S. and Middle East into harmony during the 1940s and ‘50s. Heirs to an American missionary tradition that taught them to treat Arabs and Muslims with respect and empathy, these CIA “Arabists” nevertheless behaved like political puppet-masters, orchestrating coup plots throughout the Middle East while seeking to sway public opinion in America against support for the new state of Israel. Their efforts, and ultimate failure, would doom U.S.-Middle Eastern relations for decades to come.
Drawing on extensive new material, including declassified government records, private papers, and personal interviews, America's Great Game shows how three well-intentioned spies inadvertently ruptured relations between America and the Arab world.
Wilford (The Mighty Wurlitzer), professor of history at California State University, Long Beach, delivers an account of spy games and political maneuvering featuring the aristocratic grandsons of Theodore Roosevelt, Kermit and Archie, and their compatriot Miles Copeland. Reared on exotic tales from the Arabian Nights, adventurous Roosevelt cousins joined the OSS precursor to the CIA and ventured afield as elite operatives in Iran, Egypt, and Syria in order to master the clandestine arts, engaging in "psy-war" and tempting targets with the ever-alluring "honey-trap" (in which women are used as lures). Wilford runs through a sordid record of American imperialist pretensions, replete with coups, countercoups, intrigue, subterfuge, non-diplomatic back-channels, and convoluted plots that sometimes "descended into farce" including attempts at "the possible use of hypnotism in political speech-making." Often these efforts resulted in futile gestures, gross missteps, or insuperable problems. Yet aside from its reliance upon "the spooky channel" and clandestine intrigue, the United States government used benign means of exercising influence in the region, establishing the Syrian Protestant College (later renamed the American University of Beirut) and the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). Wilford's narrative of these ambitious imperialists and their machinations is a cautionary tale of "masculine adventure," or as the case may be, elite misadventure.