Author of the Month: Hugh WilfordPublished: October 15, 2013
America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East
Hugh Wilford, professor, History
Published by the New York-based Basic Books, the 342-page book presents a time when the CIA was not perceived as an enemy of Islam or the Arab people but was seen instead as the Arab world’s strongest Western ally. Wilford focuses on three colorful CIA operatives who helped to determine the future of the Middle East and its relations with America during the agency’s formative years, the 1940s and 1950s. “Reading today’s headlines about the Mideast, you’d expect the CIA to be the enemy of Arab nationalism but, instead, it was solidly behind it,” said Wilford. “The agency even ran a secret propaganda campaign within the U.S. to generate public sympathy for the Arab countries and sway opinion against support for the new state of Israel.” Soon, though, the American-Arab alliance disintegrated and the CIA began to change from a positive force in the Arab world to one that is seen by many to be a diabolical presence. “This book tries to answer the question, ‘What changed?’” explained Wilford. Two grandsons of Theodore Roosevelt, Archie and Kermit, as well as on-the-ground agent Miles Copeland were ready to keep playing the 19th-century “Great Game” when British and Russian agents fought for control of Central Asia. The trio found themselves dealing with the conflicting influences of romantic adventure based on stories of British imperial intrigue and their backgrounds as Arabists, heirs to an American missionary tradition in the Middle East that introduced attitudes of respect and humanity to their relations with the Arab community. “All three had much in common beginning with their support for Arabs,” Wilford recalled. “They loved the Arab world and its civilization. They led the CIA’s Middle East division. I’m trying to recapture that surprising moment in a problematic relationship. Why does the U.S. acquire the reputation of being pro-Israel? How did Americans get to be known for supporting pro-Western puppets and overthrowing popularly elected governments?” The trio’s original impulse was to end the British presence in the Middle East and replace it with an American one meant to be less colonial and friendlier to the Arab world. “But at the same time, the new imperialists had a British outlook on life. For instance, Kermit ‘Kim’ Roosevelt carried the same name as the boy
hero of Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel. That was all about the Great Game involving British spies in India. They loved being spies and playing the Great Game. That is why I call the book America’s Great Game. The game-playing mentality often got the upper hand in policy making.” Wilford sifted through a vast range of declassified government records, private papers and personal interviews to recreate the roots of the U.S. relationship with the Mideast. Wilford is the author of four books including The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America:, The U.S. Government, Citizen Groups and the Cold War: The State-Private Network; and The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution. He earned his B.A. from the United Kingdom’s Bristol University and his Ph.D. from Exeter University. He joined the university in 2006.