Monday, December 9, 2013

Hugh Wilford's "America's Great Game"

Hugh Wilford is a professor of history at California State University, Long Beach, and author of four books, including The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. He lives in Long Beach, California.

Wilford applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, and reported the following:
Page 99, it turns out, is a pivotal moment in my narrative!

Some background first: my book is about a moment during the 1940s and ‘50s when US government officials, including officers of the just-founded CIA, first entered the Middle East in significant numbers. This was a time of surprising idealism. Unlike the imperialist British and French, Americans had a benevolent reputation in the Arab world, and US officials wanted to help nationalists there throw off the last shackles of western colonial domination. However, it was only a few short years before other impulses in American foreign policy got the upper hand: Cold War anti-communism (many officials watching from Washington confused Arab nationalism with communism), growing US support for Israel, and, amongst the spies of the CIA, an appetite for personal adventure in the romantic, exotic surroundings of the “Orient.”

On page 99, the year is 1949, and the focus of CIA attention is the newly independent country of Syria, where democratically elected politicians are struggling to deal with sectarian conflicts left over from the days of French colonialism and the impact of defeat in the first Arab-Israeli war. The first chief of CIA covert operations in the Middle East, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt (a grandson of Theodore), is in Washington musing about how to respond to the situation in Syria, which he fears is opening the country up to communist penetration. Before he had strongly advocated US support for the forces of Arab nationalism and democracy. Now, though, he is not so sure.

Later on the page, the scene shifts to Syria itself and the arrival in Damascus of a new CIA operative, Stephen Meade. “A tough-looking, muscular, ‘James Bond kind of character’,” as the son of a colleague remembered him, Meade soon worked his way into the confidence of a colonel in the Syrian army, Husni Zaim, who in March 1949 staged a coup against the country’s civilian government and installed himself as dictator, with Meade as his chief American advisor. Later, in August 1949, Zaim was himself overthrown, and Syria was set on a course of military coups and countercoups that culminated years afterward in the Assad regime.

Kim Roosevelt’s earlier vision of a US alliance with Arab nationalism did not die out in Syria – as my book goes on to recount, he personally befriended and secretly supported the leading Arab nationalist of the era, Gamal Nasser of Egypt – but if any single event marked the moment when the CIA began its turn from idealism toward adventurism and the playing of spy games in the Middle East, it was Husni Zaim’s coup of March 1949.
Learn more about America's Great Game at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue