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The Secret World of American Spies in the Middle East

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

In September 1947, on the day the Central Intelligence Agency was formally established in Washington, D.C., two of Teddy Roosevelt’s grandsons, Archie and Kim, drove from Beirut across the Lebanese mountains into Damascus to meet a fellow spy named Miles Copeland. Archie, 29, was the CIA’s first station chief in Beirut; Copeland, 31, was its man in Damascus. Kim (or Kermit Jr., whose namesake and father had roared around the Middle East like T.E. Lawrence during World War I) would, by 1949 at age 33, head the CIA’s covert operations in the region. For now he was traveling, nominally, as a private citizen, working on a book based on his posting to Cairo during World War II for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

In two years, Copeland would help engineer the first military coup in the Arab world: the 1949 bloodless putsch by Colonel Husni al-Za’im in Syria. To what degree is a matter of debate, including Copeland’s own boasts, and then retractions, in subsequent memoirs. Archie would try and fail to engineer another military overthrow in Syria in 1957, after a series of coups and countercoups in Damascus (Za’im only lasted a few months before he was overthrown and executed by rival officers). But the 1947 meeting, like the men’s CIA years in the Middle East during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, was a mix of business and pleasure. As Copeland later wrote, after Archie and Kim arrived in Damascus, they set out “on a tour of Crusader castles and off-the-beaten-path places.”

While Kim directed operations from Washington and made periodic trips to Cairo, Beirut, and Tehran, Archie and Copeland built a nascent American spy network by speaking Arabic and knowing the culture (Archie spoke 16 languages), working their charm and connections, and, occasionally, making things up. “What’s the difference between my fabricating reports and your letting your agents do it?” Copeland, an Alabama college dropout and self-regarded “Tennessee riverboat gambler,” told an accusing Archie. “At least mine makes sense.”

This was the life of a few elite American Middle East specialists and spies in the early days of the Cold War: intrigue and a self-possessed sense of adventure in a region emerging from European colonialism and into, they insisted, a more magnanimous American orbit of what historian Hugh Wilford has called “disinterested benevolence.” If only it had happened that way.

America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East1 is about the moment, from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, when the United States was the region’s upstart, rather than its hegemon. Wilford’s book—a three-part biography of the two Roosevelts and Copeland—underscores the high hopes but ultimate flaws and fallacies in the Americans’ meddling. He focuses on Kim, Archie, and other spies’ patrician, East Coast roots, including their Groton and Harvard upbringings, to explain their sense of entitlement and responsibility. (Copeland described his Beirut counterpart as “a member in good standing of what passes for nobility in America.”) They spoke of a new era even as they fomented anti-democratic coups, coddled military strongmen, and sought to turn former British or French wards into anti-Soviet satellites though bribes, “crypto-diplomacy,” and secret meetings in the middle of the night (often behind the back of the local ambassador and the State Department).

“Arabists” originally refers to an earlier generation of American diplomats, many of whom were descended from nineteenth-century American missionaries to the Middle East and who had expertise in and affinity for the Arab world. The CIA’s Arabists combined that apostle mentality with a view of the Middle East that merged romance with strategic possibility. America’s postwar ascendancy could reap regional rewards—not only oil, but as Archie observed, a relationship for America “as the great unselfish friend of the Moslems,” as Islam became “a factor of increasing importance.” He later told an OSS interviewer, “as an aspiring orientalist I naturally have some sympathy with the Arabs.”

That sympathy shaped the Americans’ opposition to Zionism and talk of mutual respect with the Arab world. But the spies often sounded like Graham Greene’s Quiet American. Kim Philby, the British-Soviet double agent, even claimed that his acquaintance, Kim Roosevelt, was the inspiration for Greene’s character, as a “courteous, soft-spoken Easterner with impeccable social connections… the last person you would expect to be up to the neck in dirty tricks.” That included Kim’s notorious leading involvement in the joint British-American coup in Iran in 1953, known as Operation Ajax, to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and reinstall the young Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, after Mosaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry.

Kim likely exaggerated his own role in Operation Ajax. In private retellings and a book, he described it as something out of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, a favorite book since his childhood. Adventurous appeals aside, the coup had a poisonous legacy for Iranian-American relations as it helped lay the foundation for the Shah’s enduring authoritarianism that led to the Islamic Revolution.

Wilford contrasts the hopes expressed by the spies and young Arab nationalists in Cairo and Damascus for a new kind of power relationship with the reality of American ambition, deceit, and blunder. The drama played out most of all in Cairo, where Kim and the CIA station first supported the Free Officers who overthrew King Farouk in 1952, especially their young leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Wilford notes that one local agent even wrote a series of papers on Western political theory and had them translated into Arabic to distribute to Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council. Copeland, who was by then in Cairo under the cover of consulting with Booz, Allen, & Hamilton, would conspicuously host Nasser at his villa in the leafy Cairo suburb of Maadi.

But the honeymoon was over by the mid-1950s, when the Americans refused Nasser’s continued requests for development assistance to Egypt, including weapons, and failed to buy him off with a briefcase of $3 million cash. Rebuffed by Washington, offended by the attempted bribe, and unwilling to enter a British-backed, anti-Soviet regional security pact, Nasser threw his lot in with the Non-Aligned Movement and then secured arms from Moscow through Czechoslovakia. In 1956, he nationalized the Suez Canal, which sparked the joint British-French-Israeli invasion, which was only defused through American pressure. Nasser turned military defeat into political victory and catapulted to postcolonial hero status in the Arab world.   

Wilford has surprisingly little to say about this pivotal event of Nasser’s rise in the 1950s; he just sums up the Suez Crisis as the “world-famous events.” The elision is more obvious given the overdue attention he pays to historical sidetracks, like the CIA’s support and funding of American Friends of the Middle East, a citizen group that tried to sway U.S. public opinion away from Israel and toward Arabs in the 1950s. Although certainly notable that the CIA helped propagate anti-Zionism to the American public in the 1950s—a pet project, Wilford argues, of the ardent anti-Zionists in the CIA, led by Kim—the Friends got nowhere and shaped little to no policy before petering out in 1967.

Rather than transform power relations in the Middle East, this spy clique made America into the next resented and even reviled foreign power in a region that has known too many. “The genius of you Americans is that you never made clear-cut stupid moves,” Nasser told Copeland in 1957, “only complicated stupid moves.” A stubborn desire to pursue regime change in Syria through strongmen with little local support base pushed Syria closer to Moscow, not farther from it, and led to the domination of the Baath party, with contemporary overtones. As Wilford writes, “some recent pronouncements about the Agency’s lack of assets in Syria could easily have dated from the summer of 1957.”

And for all their supposed rejection of Orientalist attitudes about the region from their British counterparts, they didn’t always sound so different. Archie described his wartime posting in North Africa as feeling “like Connecticut Yankees, transferred to an earlier, more tranquil century.” Their failures were many, from their doublespeak to the false promise of magnanimity in how Washington dealt with the Middle East. But they also joined guile with credulity; they were quiet Americans. On the way to Tehran in July 1953 to overthrow Mossadegh, Kim recalled what his father wrote about an African hunting trip with his grandfather, Teddy Roosevelt: “It was a great adventure, and all the world was young!”

Frederick Deknatel is a staff editor at Foreign Affairs.

  1. America's Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East by Hugh Wilford