America's Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford.
Americans had ventured into the Arab world for many decades prior to the end of World War Two. Much of this time, the interaction was driven by private means: missionaries, universities, archeologists, charitable organizations. For those Americans exposed to this world, the overwhelming description that could be applied would be to label these as Arabists: understanding and appreciating both the Arab people and the Arab culture.
This was even true in the early years of official US government intervention in the region. In many ways, it couldn’t be otherwise: the early “official” Americans – for example, the cousins Kim and Archie Roosevelt – were introduced into this Arab world by the Americans who were already there, those already sympathetic to the Arab people: the missionaries, university presidents archeologists, and leaders of charitable organizations.
So what changed? This is to be explored next by Wilford.
The excuse began with communism. President Truman formally announced the beginning of the Cold War in March 1947, announcing that the United States would provide aid to those countries threatened by communism. With this came the Marshall plan, the establishment of a permanent civilian intelligence agency, and the National Security Act. But the story begins earlier.
What about Palestine, Arabs, Jews and Zionists? Historically the US stayed out of this issue, leaving it to Britain and their 1922 League of Nations mandate. During this mandatory period: Jewish immigration, Arab revolts, Jewish terrorist acts…the tension was ever-increasing and the British appetite for continuing on – not to mention their financial wherewithal – was waning.
In the meantime, Zionists in America – supported by a faction of Christians who saw the creation of the state of Israel as bringing the world one step closer to their desired Armageddon – were making headway. Newspaper advertisements, Jewish survivors from Europe, lobbying congress: a focused effort to gain support from the US government to the Zionist cause.
The Roosevelt administration was reluctant to support the Zionist cause. This reluctance was based on the view of the Middle East experts in the State Department – they were primarily Arabists at the time; the entirety of American experience in the Middle East until this time was in support of and sympathetic to the Arabs. Support for a Jewish state would turn the Arabs away from America, toward the communists.
Further, many of the Jews that were lobbying for a Jewish state were socialists themselves – imagine…the US government supporting Zionist socialists in order to turn the Arabs into socialists in league with the Soviets!
To say nothing of the oil: as one State Department analyst described the Saudi oil fields, “the greatest single prize in all of history.” Lend-Lease dollars were flowing into Saudi Arabia after FDR declared the country of vital strategic importance in 1943. And the king of this vitally strategic country had a strong opinion on the topic at hand:
…Ibn Saud was implacably opposed to Zionism and deeply suspicious of American intentions in Palestine.
The Saudis were secretly approached with development money to support the Jewish cause; he rejected the proposal “angrily, as an attempted bribe.” (My, how times have changed.)
Harold Hoskins returned to Washington from his visit with Ibn Saud. He offered his view to FDR…
…”that the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine can only be imposed…[and] maintained by force” – in other words, that if the Zionists were to succeed, FDR would have to send American troops into the Middle East.
Need I review the history of American involvement in the intervening seventy-five years?
In February 1945, when returning from Yalta, Roosevelt hosted a reception for Ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy. Even with Persian rugs strewn across the deck and all of Roosevelt’s personal charm, Roosevelt was unable to move the king from his anti-Zionism. But in every other way, the meeting was a success – cementing the relationship between the two.
With FDR’s passing, Truman came to the White House with more sympathetic Zionist views. Truman found more of his support in the US from Jews as opposed to Arabs.
As congressional elections loomed in the fall of 1946, Truman chose the eve of Yom Kippur, October 4, to declare his public support for the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine, the first US president to do so.
This at the time when the situation in Palestine was deteriorating rapidly: Jewish terrorists went after British targets, hastening Britain’s decision to surrender authority to the United Nations and its ultimate withdrawal.
The possibility of a partition was raised, supported by Zionists and opposed by the Arabs. The CIA produced a paper on the matter – wrong in some aspects but quite prescient in many regarding the potential results of a partition: it would lead to prolonged armed hostilities between Jews and Arabs; it would seriously destabilize many parts of the Arab world; it would damage the previously good reputation of the United States in the region.
The report did not change minds. The US supported the partition resolution in the United Nations; many prominent Arabists in the State Department resigned in protest, others were shunted off of the Arab desk into less meaningful or visible positions.
Their Ivy League skills and their exceptional knowledge of the region and the people did not help them; they learned a hard lesson:
The emotional power of Zionism in Holocaust-era America and the skill of the Zionist movement’s leadership in mobilizing the support of ordinary Americans were more than a match for these advantages.
The term Arabist was transformed: from a term identifying someone who was knowledgeable of and appreciative of Arab culture to someone who was…hold your breath…an anti-Semite.