“As you know, Archie, we’re much concerned about what’s going on in Syria – especially the way the Communists and the nationalists appear to be ganging up for some kind of action there...I’d like you to fly out to Damascus right away, talk to our ambassador, and see…what can be done about it.”
- Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Archie Roosevelt
It has been sixty years; not much has changed.
America's Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford.
With this charge, Archie, accompanied by the CIA’s “Mr. Middle East,” Kim Roosevelt, arrived in Beirut. The cousins were to begin a three-week tour of the region to size up the possibility of covert action in Syria and to mobilize Arab opposition to Nasser (perhaps the first “next Hitler” in the long list of the many since). Nasser was seen as the root of the new Arab nationalism problem, his nationalization of the Suez Canal being perhaps the biggest concern.
As was – and will always be – the case, supporters in opposition to the standing government could often be found. What was proposed by the opposition was a coup. Archie was unfazed, a strange reaction given that Archie was a strong Arabist, previously supportive of Arab nationalism and even a supporter of Nasser in Egypt.
Wilford focusses on the issues of the Cold War in turning Archie and other Arabists against their previously-held views – but this seems unsupportable; even in later years when writing his memoirs, Archie recognized that the goals of Arab nationalists and communists were diametrically opposed. Yet, this is ultimately the reason that Wilford identifies as the cause of Archie’s switch.
Things didn’t go as well in Syria for the Americans as it had in Iran a few years earlier. The reasons are familiar: Arab resistance, British duplicity, and the inherent contradictions in America’s policy. A critical factor sixty years ago was the position of the Saudis – not in support of the American plan.
The Saudis were threatened: America is prepared to meet its energy needs with nuclear power, and also to provide nuclear energy to all of Europe; your oil will no longer be needed (a familiar play today regarding America’s promises of natural gas to Europe in the face of Russia). The Saudi king replied with a handwritten note the next day: I don’t believe you. He knew that it was a bluff, and the Americans were caught bluffing.
In the midst of all of this, the British, French and Israelis went after Egypt and the Suez, with Eisenhower forcing them to stand down. Several reasons are offered, perhaps most convincing is that the Americans were left out of the planning and execution – this all occurred in a manner hidden from the Americans.
This American rebuke brought down Anthony Eden as Prime Minister and raised, once again, the profile of America in the Arab world. The feeling did not last long. Eisenhower quickly swallowed his anger with the British, and once again the Americans and the British were working together for empire.
As a play against Nasser, Jordan and Lebanon would have to be co-opted in addition to the hoped-for action against Syria. The story takes an interesting detour – and one that will sound familiar to more recent events. A coup in Jordan, taken by elements opposed to the young King Hussein – at least that is the official story.
The story remains controversial, yet it appears that the “coup” attempt was, in fact, staged by Hussein himself, perhaps with American help. The king played the hero against the supposed plotters; the supposed ring leader was offered rather lenient treatment; Hussein went from being a “playboy” to being a serious Arab leader in the eyes of the west – now receiving tens of millions of dollars in aid.
Western-friendly political candidates in Lebanon were funded with briefcases full of cash, in an effort to secure election victory. With western-favored politicians in place in Lebanon, and Hussein’s position secured in Jordan, Americans could once again focus on Syria.
It was apparent to the Americans that there was no indigenous opposition in Syria – the Americans would have to manufacture the opposition. For this, they had to reach down to junior army officers; unfortunately for the Americans, the one they found turned out to be a Syrian government informer.
The Syrians spoiled the American plans: they surrounded the American embassy with thirty police officers, ordered the expulsion of Americans directly behind the plot. Worse, friendly Arab elements throughout the region were turning cold regarding American designs on the country, with one exception: Turkey.
But bringing Turkey into the Syrian situation could very well provoke a Soviet response. Dulles was willing to take the chance. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed – something lacking in today’s replay of these events, it seems.
This post is my final post in review of Wilford’s book. I very much appreciated the many details of events, but I cannot help but consider a few gaping holes in his analysis – left unsaid or barely mentioned:
First, Eisenhower: We all know of his warning regarding the military-industrial complex. In reading this history, one cannot help but conclude that Eisenhower was a hypocrite. I recognize that comments after the fact can be self-serving, but I offer the following:
The Eisenhower administration’s “adventurist policy” was “intolerable…You can’t go around overthrowing any gov[ernmen]t.” Allen Dulles “sympathized,” Kim [Roosevelt] recalled, “but said there was nothing he could do about it.”
The CIA went from an intelligence gathering organization to one directly involved in covert operations; this is Eisenhower’s legacy.
Second, Saudi Arabia: a more drastic change cannot be suggested in regarding the Saudi view toward their Arab brothers in this Great Game. Whereas sixty years ago the Saudis were strongly concerned about their standing with Arabs in the Middle East, no such concern is evident today.
Third, Israel: Barely addressed by Wilford is the dramatic shift in American policy in the region – from sympathy for the Arabs to reverence for the state of Israel.
Fourth: Nothing has changed – change a few dates and names and this is the same story that has been witnessed and repeated even in the last ten years.