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America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle Eastby Hugh Wilford
Synopses & Reviews
From the 9/11 attacks to waterboarding to drone strikes, relations between the United States and the Middle East seem caught in a downward spiral. And all too often, the Central Intelligence Agency has made the situation worse. But this crisis was not a historical inevitability — far from it. Indeed, the earliest generation of CIA operatives was actually the regions staunchest western ally.
In America's Great Game, celebrated intelligence historian Hugh Wilford reveals the surprising history of the CIA's pro-Arab operations in the 1940s and 50s by tracing the work of the agency's three most influential — and colorful — officers in the Middle East. Kermit Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and the first head of CIA covert action in the region; his cousin, Archie Roosevelt, was a Middle East scholar and chief of the Beirut station. The two Roosevelts joined combined forces with Miles Copeland, a maverick covert operations specialist who had joined the American intelligence establishment during World War II. With their deep knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs, the three men were heirs to an American missionary tradition that engaged Arabs and Muslims with respect and empathy. Yet they were also fascinated by imperial intrigue, and were eager to play a modern rematch of the Great Game,” the nineteenth-century struggle between Britain and Russia for control over central Asia. Despite their good intentions, these Arabists” propped up authoritarian regimes, attempted secretly to sway public opinion in America against support for the new state of Israel, and staged coups that irrevocably destabilized the nations with which they empathized. Their efforts, and ultimate failure, would shape the course of U.S.Middle Eastern relations for decades to come.
Based on a vast array of declassified government records, private papers, and personal interviews, America's Great Game tells the riveting story of the merry band of CIA officers whose spy games forever changed U.S. foreign policy.
"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." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
[Hugh] makes deft use of declassified government documents....In addition to analytical rigor, Mr. Wilford has an eye for a good story...Mr. Wilford is a careful historian, with no Middle Eastern ax to grind. The main goal of Americas Great Game is to shed light on the role of the CIA in the Middle East. It succeeds magnificently.” Wall Street Journal
What is most remarkable in this tale is how quickly our three Arabists were willing to jump to the other side of the street, to go from identifying and encouraging progressive Arab leaders to trying to neutralize them, to go from deriding the client regimes left behind by the European powers to cozying up to them .It's to Wilford's credit that he highlights the inconsistencies — and often, outright falsehoods — of his main sources.” New York Times Book Review
They were romantics and spies. They opposed Communism and supported Arab interests. They were susceptible to the American missionary impulse in foreign policy and the dreamy British view of the Middle East as a staging ground for heroics and adventure. They were the Arabists of America's clandestine services and for decades their story has been shrouded in mystery — and misunderstanding .[Hugh Wilford's] chronicle of their adventures and, more often, their misadventure, makes for compelling, illuminating reading.” Boston Globe
A lively and well-balanced examination of American muddling and vacillating in the Middle East. Highly recommended for readers interested in modern Middle East history and those curious about the complicated threads of idealism, adventurism, and imperialism confusing American foreign policy.” Library Journal, starred review
By turns admiring and critical play-by-play of CIA Arabists as they directed the Cold Wars Middle East chessboard....[An] insightful examination of these Mad Men' on the Nile.” Kirkus
Suggesting significant effects wrought on events by American secret agents, Wilford merits the attention of students of CIA history.” Booklist
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.
About the Author
Hugh Wilford is a professor of history at California State University, Long Beach, and author of four books, including The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. He lives in Long Beach, California.
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