From Cold War-era coups to “enhanced interrogation” in the “war on terror,” the CIA has courted the suspicion and hatred of the Muslim world. But it was not always so. For several years after its creation in 1947, the agency was an outpost of support for Arab nationalism in the U.S. government.
Even more surprising, the head of the CIA’s “Arabists” was Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, better known as the man who organized the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. Where did this Arabist impulse come from, and why was it eventually overwhelmed by other forces in U.S. foreign policy?
Like many Middle East hands in the State Department, the CIA Arabists believed that the region and its oil reserves were the key to U.S. victory in the Cold War. But they also had personal reasons for their interest in the Arab world beyond strategic or economic considerations. Kermit Roosevelt grew up on stories of the British Empire and the “Great Game,” the Anglo-Russian rivalry for control of Central Asia. His nickname “Kim” came from the famous novel about espionage in colonial India by Rudyard Kipling, a friend of his grandfather, President Theodore Roosevelt; his father, Kermit Sr., served in the Middle East during World War I alongside such British Arabists as T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” From the British, Kim Roosevelt and his cousin Archie, another senior officer in the early CIA, inherited an appetite for personal adventure in the Orient and a romantic attraction to Arab civilization.
Even more important as a source of CIA Arabism was the American missionary tradition in the Arab world that, like the British presence there, dated back to the 19th century. When the U.S. government first sought to establish an intelligence network in the region during World War II, it turned to two descendants of prominent missionary families associated with the American University of Beirut, William Eddy and Harold Hoskins. Future AUB President Stephen Penrose ran the Cairo headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s wartime precursor. Kim Roosevelt’s first Middle Eastern posting was as an undercover OSS officer in Cairo, where he absorbed Penrose’s respect for Arab nationalism and belief in the importance of American-Arab friendship.
With British and French colonial power in the Middle East waning after World War II, American Arabists set about trying to create a policy toward the region that reflected the missionary tradition of “disinterested benevolence.” After joining the CIA in 1949, Roosevelt devised several operations designed to bolster the position of progressive Arab nationalists. The most important of these took place in Egypt, where in 1952 army officers overthrew the British client monarchy of King Farouk. Roosevelt forged a personal friendship with the country’s rising nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and dispatched a CIA team led by his colorful lieutenant, the jazz-playing southerner Miles Copeland, to shore up the revolutionary government in Cairo.
In addition to helping create the modern Egyptian intelligence apparatus, Copeland (incidentally, the father of Stewart Copeland, the drummer of the band Police) trained the Egyptian leadership in propaganda techniques borrowed from Madison Avenue.
Meanwhile, at home in the U.S., Roosevelt channeled CIA funding to an apparently independent group of pro-Arab private citizens, the American Friends of the Middle East. Launched in 1951 under the leadership of the celebrity journalist Dorothy Thompson, AFME worked to foster American support for Arab nationalists such as Abdel-Nasser and counter the growing power of the so-called “Israel Lobby.”
Also linked to the CIA was the American Council for Judaism, an organization of anti-Zionist Jews led by Roosevelt’s close friend, Rabbi Elmer Berger. Israeli leaders noted the existence of AFME and ACJ and launched an effort to combat their influence, joining a behind-the-scenes struggle to control opinion in the U.S. about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The heyday of the Arabists came in the years 1953 to 1955. Abdel-Nasser consolidated his hold on power in Egypt and launched a bid for regional leadership. In the U.S., the new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, adopted a Middle Eastern policy that was noticeably less friendly to Israel than that of his predecessor, Harry Truman. Things started to unravel, however, when Roosevelt failed to secure a secret U.S. arms deal with Egypt, causing Abdel-Nasser to seek Soviet support. Eisenhower’s fervently anti-communist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles withdrew American backing from the Egyptian government, throwing it instead behind conservative Arab regimes left over from the days of European colonialism.
Ironically, the CIA now became an instrument for undermining rather than strengthening nationalist governments in countries such as Syria. In America, the pro- Israel lobby achieved the upper hand over the American Friends of the Middle East and the American Council for Judaism. By 1958, both Kim Roosevelt and Miles Copeland had left the CIA for consulting jobs in the oil industry, while Archie Roosevelt was reassigned to Europe.
What lessons, if any, can be drawn from this episode in U.S.- Middle East relations? The simple fact that CIA Arabism existed serves as proof that, contrary to theories about a “clash of civilizations,” there is nothing inevitable about conflict between Americans and Arabs. Admiration for Arab culture, even a mystical faith in American-Arab friendship, was a powerful impulse within a U.S. government agency now widely seen as one of the Arab world’s greatest foes.
Still, it is striking how quickly the U.S. changed course from supporting to attacking Arab nationalists. The CIA Arabists themselves were partly to blame for this development, as they clearly enjoyed indulging the appetite for spy games that they had inherited from an earlier generation of British imperial agents in the region. It is this tendency that explains Kim Roosevelt’s enthusiastic involvement in the coup against Mosaddeq, a plot originally conceived by the British. In the end, CIA Arabism proved a slender reed on which to rest future hopes of American-Arab cooperation.
If the lessons of the early Cold War era for the present day are ambiguous, what is clear is that this was a foundational moment in modern relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. The origins of all the recent major news stories about American involvement in the region – from Egypt through Israel and Syria to Iran – lie in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when U.S. Arabists briefly dreamed of a happier form of engagement with the Arab world than that of the European colonial powers past, yet ended up only playing an American version of the Great Game.
Hugh Wilford is a professor of history at California State University, Long Beach, and the author of “America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East” (Basic Books, 2014). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.