Kermit Roosevelt (L), his cousin Archie Roosevelt, and Miles Copeland
At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case.
Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency's three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt was the grandson of president 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; while Miles Copeland was a covert operations specialist who joined the American intelligence enterprise during World War II.
Skillfully drawing on personal papers, autobiographies and other primary sources, Wilford illustrates the diplomatic history that created America's Great Game. More importantly, he underscores the political and ideological dogmas of these individuals – specifically, the rabidly pro-Arab and anti-Zionist views that shaped the CIA in its early years.
Rabidly pro-Arab and anti-Zionist views shaped the CIA in its early years.
The CIA was created in 1947 and drew on the remains of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, which had been dissolved in 1945. Leaders of the new CIA were drawn from OSS veterans, but they were also members of a fading patrician class of American Protestants – with deep ties to elite universities like Harvard and Yale, and to missionaries with connections throughout the Middle East.
Navigating the organizational labyrinth of American bureaucracy was easier with family and social ties like that of the Roosevelts. Moreover, controlling the CIA's Middle East agenda – opposing Zionism and Communism, supporting Arab regimes in its early years – was made possible by connecting the agency to outside groups, through what today would be called "astro-turfing."
In 1948, Roosevelt and leading anti-Zionist Virginia Gildersleeve, a former dean of Barnard College, had formed the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land, which warned that "extreme Zionist pressure" was in "danger of disruption of our national unity and encouraging anti-Semitism." The group worked in close coordination with the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, and with State Department officials.
Roosevelt kept forming anti-Israel groups, such as 1949's Holy Land Christian Committee, ostensibly to assist Christians in Israel. Careful to include anti-Zionist Jews, "HELP" featured Lessing J. Rosenwald, former chairman of the board of Sears and Roebuck and onetime president of the American Council for Judaism; and Allen Dulles, a former State Department and OSS official and future director of the CIA. HELP was directed by CIA employee William A. Eddy, a former US minister plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and consultant to Aramco.
In its press releases, HELP warned that "lasting peace is not possible until relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction are effected," and that the "hundreds of thousands of starving, sick and shelterless create a fertile field for Communist intrigue."
As Bronson Clark of the American Friends Service Committee, then doing refugee relief work in Gaza, noted after a meeting with HELP: "This body, composed entirely of pro-Arab, anti-Zionist elements, was not to be an operating agency but was to serve as a publicity front for the operating agencies.
Through groups like AFME and anti-Zionist activists like Rabbi Elmer Berger, the Roosevelts were able to shape the CIA's prism of the Middle East.
"This meeting represents another move in a series of moves which, like an iceberg, show only one-quarter on the surface what goes on, while three-quarters of the maneuverings are hidden."
Finally, in 1951, Roosevelt – together with two dozen pro-Arab American educators, theologians and writers, including Gildersleeve and Harry Emerson Fosdick – founded an anti-Zionist group called American Friends of the Middle East (AFME). It was Roosevelt who used his role at the CIA to ensure the organization would fund the group through the CIA and Aramco.
It was through groups like the AFME and anti-Zionist activists like Rabbi Elmer Berger, a leader of the American Council for Judaism, that the Roosevelts were able to shape the CIA's prism of the Middle East. With Kim Roosevelt's blessing, the AFME led the way in educating policy- makers, journalists and others as to the Middle Eastern "reality" – which coincided with their political biases.
As Wilford writes, "In December 1958, AFME drafted a pamphlet, 'Story of a Purpose,' which eloquently articulated the group's founding values: sympathy towards Arab nationalism and the drive toward Arab unity, rejection of the last vestiges of colonialism and imperialism, and the belief that the Palestine Question is the very heart of the Middle East problems, requiring a US policy of friendly and sympathetic impartiality."
The AFME organization still exists today as AMIDEAST, "a leading American nonprofit organization engaged in international education, training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa."
Wilford's historical account helps explain how modern NGOs' evergreen anti-Zionist views remain cornerstones today, along with the convenient core belief that all Middle East problems reside in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Characterizing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Zionist groups as the center of a nefarious "Israel lobby" is also not new.
Times may have changed, but the seeds of the Great Game laid out by the CIA Arabists remain visible today.
The writer is a fellow at the Middle East Forum, and co-author of Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).