A Losing Game: America’s Postwar Arabists

America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists
and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

Hugh Wilford (New York: Basic Books, 2013)

One of the most famous anecdotes of the Truman administration was first revealed by presidential adviser Clark Clifford in his memoirs. Secretary of State George Marshall and his undersecretary were called into the Oval Office to debate with Clifford the merits of recognizing Israel. After Clifford argued in favor of Israel, Marshall, whom Winston Churchill called the “Organizer of Victory” for his role as army secretary during World War II, made what Clifford called “the most remarkable threat I have ever heard anyone make directly to a president.” Said Marshall to Truman: “If you follow Clifford’s advice and if I were to vote in the election, I would vote against you.”

Marshall’s stunning comment reflected the viewpoint of “almost every member of the brilliant and now legendary group of presidential advisers, later referred to as the Wise Men, who were then in the process of creating a postwar foreign policy that would endure for more than forty years,” recalled Clifford. Those advisers included such luminaries as George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, and Charles Bohlen. They were later dubbed the “Arabists” because they believed that the Arabs could be allied with America after World War II—and should be courted instead of Israel.

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The sentiments of Truman’s State Department toward the Arab peoples are well documented. Far less well known are those of the members of the early Central Intelligence Agency. In this engaging book, Hugh Wilford convincingly establishes that early CIA officers held broadly the same anti-Zionist positions as Marshall et al.


Wilford structures America’s Great Game as a triple biography. Chronicled are Miles Copeland, Archie Roosevelt, and Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, the latter bearing what is surely the most enjoyable name in the history of Western intelligence. Kermit and Archie were grandsons of Teddy Roosevelt, and Copeland a friend of the family.

All three grew up with romanticized notions of the Middle East. They believed the region to be populated by exotic characters and environments like those found in Arabian Nights and Lawrence of Arabia. Such romance expired in the second half of the twentieth century, put to bed by an overdarkened vision in which Arabs are thought to be terrorists, despots, and misogynists—living in a place that is anything but a land of magic and dreams.

Wilford applies the late radical literary critic Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism to describe the views of the Roosevelt heirs. Said argued that condescending views were the only possible perspective of Westerners in the age of imperialism, yet America’s Great Game shows a more hardheaded “Arabism.” Yes, the three men “had been raised and educated in an elite environment that conditioned them, long before they ever directly experienced the region itself, to look upon the Middle East much as the British imperial agents of an earlier generation had: as a place for heroic individual adventure, where a handful of brave and resourceful Western spies could control the fate of nations.” But, Wilford continues, “to a certain extent, this legacy of spy games and kingmaking was offset by the American missionary tradition conveyed to the early CIA by [its predecessor] the OSS, which tended to emphasize instead the moral values of Arab self-determination and mutual cultural exchange.”

That tradition, moderated by a strong sense of US national interest, offered America the best prospects for good postwar relationships with Arab populations, which is what Archie, Kermit, and Miles set out to achieve. They believed that the best way to prevent the Soviet Union from making inroads in the Middle East was to make allies out of Arab leaders and their publics. They also were sympathetic to the region’s anti-imperialist desires and its aspirations for self-determination. Wilford argues persuasively that although the men contested the legitimacy of Zionism, they were not by and large anti-Jewish. Along with some other Arabists such as the journalist Dorothy Thompson (who actually was anti-Semitic), they formed an organization called the American Friends of the Middle East, which expressed their viewpoint and formed as an unofficial lobbying organization.

For a time, it seemed that the Arabists would succeed in stewarding US foreign policy in their preferred direction. They had credibility with the Truman administration, which, after all, had created the CIA in 1947. And of course Marshall, Acheson, Kennan, and other powerful figures agreed with the agents. But the president himself did not. As New Republic senior editor John Judis convincingly demonstrates in his new book Genesis, the president’s concerns were more with his domestic position and the upcoming 1948 presidential election than with the merits of the Arab cause. Try as Copeland and the Roosevelt cousins might, their Arab lobby was no match for Israel’s. Marshall himself told Truman that he was disappointed in the president, who, he believed, was strongly supporting statehood for Israel to boost his electoral prospects.

A second opportunity to reconsider US policy in the region presented itself when Dwight Eisenhower assumed power in 1953. It is often forgotten that Eisenhower and his brash secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were colder toward Israel than any other administration has been since. In a move unimaginable in today’s climate, Eisenhower wanted, he revealed in his memoirs, a “resolution which would call on all United Nations members to suspend not just governmental but private assistance to Israel” in 1957 to pressure the Jewish state to abandon the Sinai. Senate leader Lyndon Johnson informed the general that it wasn’t going to happen, leaving Eisenhower to find it “disheartening that partisan considerations could enter” the situation.

It is hard today to imagine that the CIA had a receptive audience with a leader in the White House willing to confront Israel so strongly. After visiting the region—the first US secretary of state to do so—Dulles was “more convinced than ever of the need to carry on courting Arab nationalists in general and [Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel] Nasser in particular,” writes Wilford. But the Egyptian leader vacillated between the United States and the Soviets, eventually alienating Eisenhower, while Israel desperately wanted to be a loyal American ally. The choice of which horse to back decided itself.


The Arabists never again came so close to implementing their vision of an American foreign policy sympathetic to Arab countries. Which isn’t to say they lost their influence in all ways. In what seems like a contradiction, Kermit Roosevelt was instrumental in the CIA-backed coup d’état that ousted the democratically elected leader of Iran, Muhammad Mossadeq, in 1953. But his sympathies were with Arabs, not Muslims. And, as America’s Great Game makes clear, the CIA trio was more addicted to their intrigues than they were to their idealism. In a nice parallel, Wilford notes that on his way to Iran Roosevelt remembered what his father told him after a trip with Grandfather Teddy: “It was a great adventure, and all the world was young.” Wilford writes that “Kim regarded his mission to Iran as a Kipling-esque adventure.” He bragged about his exploits in Iran for years, until the 1979 Iranian revolution showed the coup to be a disaster whose effects still resonate in the history of the region.

The Arabists’ dreams were always complicated by the fact that most Middle East leaders were oppressive, unaccountable to their subjects, and suffering from varying degrees of illegitimacy, a moral and strategic conundrum that Wilford neglects. President Nasser of Egypt was a partial exception, standing as arguably the most popular Arab leader of the twentieth century. But even he was reviled by Islamists—al-Qaeda’s proto-theoretician Sayyid Qutb was hanged for his opposition to Nasser’s quasi-secularism. As long as the US was involved in the region, in other words, it was doomed to alienate some actors while aligning itself with others.

Nonetheless, Wilford is persuasive in arguing that the solidification of the alliance between Israel and the United States made America’s position in the Middle East far worse than it need have been. The US could have kept Israel from being affiliated with the Soviet Union while avoiding a relationship with it that has removed all flexibility in crafting policy. A more nuanced position would not have eliminated hostility to the United States in the region, but it certainly would have reduced it. “The Arabist defeats of the Eisenhower era established the basic pattern of US relations with the Middle East in the years that followed,” Wilford writes in America’s Great Game. Readers of this entertaining and stimulating book will find it difficult to disagree.

Jordan Michael Smith, a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor, has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Atlantic.

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