America’s Great Game: The C.I.A. & U.S. Middle East Foreign Policy

10 March, 2014

64 Years Lat­er, CIA Final­ly Releas­es Details of Iran­ian Coup*

This is a review of a pub­lic forum pre­sent­ed by the Lev­an­tine Cul­tur­al Cen­ter on the evening of Thurs­day, March 6, 2014, at the West­wood Hills Con­gre­ga­tion­al Church in Los Ange­les. The par­tic­i­pants were intel­li­gence his­to­ri­an Hugh Wil­ford, for­mer CIA case man­ag­er Robert Baer, and mod­er­a­tor Robert Scheer, a long­time jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor on KCR­W’s Left, Right and Cen­ter. I curat­ed the pro­gram, with sup­port from KPFK 90.7 FM and LA Jews for Peace.

By Jordan Elgrably


THE CIA HAS ENTERED OUR POPULAR IMAGINATION
 as a mys­te­ri­ous agency oper­at­ing out of Lan­g­ley, Vir­ginia that does the work of the Amer­i­can empire, foil­ing our per­ceived ene­mies abroad and accom­plish­ing the tasks that suit par­tic­u­lar big busi­ness inter­ests, whether in the Mid­dle East, Asia, South Amer­i­ca or Europe, where for decades Amer­i­ca’s great­est adver­sary was the Sovi­et Union (at one time the CIA devot­ed 60% of its bud­get to com­bat­ting the Soviets).

Hugh Wilford, Robert Scheer & Robert Baer (Photos: Jordan Elgrably)

Just this past year, as jour­nal­ist and Truthdig edi­tor-in-chief Robert Scheer point­ed out, 60 years after the MI6-CIA engi­neered coup of Iran’s demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly-elect­ed Moham­mad Mossadegh, the CIA released doc­u­ments that admit­ted its respon­si­bil­i­ty for med­dling in Iran’s inter­nal affairs. The CIA not­ed: “[T]he mil­i­tary coup that over­threw Mossadegh and his Nation­al Front cab­i­net was car­ried out under CIA direc­tion as an act of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy.” It was made clear that U.S. moti­va­tions were almost entire­ly economic.

But who are the Amer­i­can recruits who do our gov­ern­men­t’s bid­ding, and what do they care about? Why is the CIA so feared and hat­ed through­out the Mid­dle East and North Africa?

Author and for­mer CIA case man­ag­er Robert Baer is an Ara­bic- and Per­sian speak­ing Amer­i­can who spent 21 years as a CIA employ­ee, most­ly in the Mid­dle East. A Los Ange­les native, he grad­u­at­ed from George­town Uni­ver­si­ty and did grad­u­ate work at UC Berke­ley, where he applied to the CIA’s Direc­torate of Oper­a­tions. Baer’s books See No Evil and Sleep­ing with the Dev­il were the basis for the 2005 Acad­e­my Award-win­ning motion pic­ture Syr­i­anaThe film’s char­ac­ter Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney) is loose­ly based on Baer. Baer’s most recent books are The Dev­il We Know: Deal­ing with the New Iran­ian Super­pow­er and The Com­pa­ny We Keep: A Hus­band-and-Wife True-Life Spy Sto­ry.

He also pub­lished a nov­el, Blow the House Down. At one point dur­ing the evening, Baer quipped, “All nov­els are about good intentions.”

americas great game hugh wilford cover 800pix.jpg

I WAS INITIALLY INSPIRED TO CURATE THIS PROGRAM after learn­ing of a new book by Cal State Long Beach pro­fes­sor Hugh Wil­ford, a British intel­li­gence his­to­ri­an who researched the ear­ly years of the CIA, when Ker­mit “Kim” Roo­sevelt, the grand­son of Theodore Roo­sevelt, was an oper­a­tive, and the agency was over­run with zealots who were, Wil­ford found, well-trained and sym­pa­thet­ic Arabists.

Wil­ford’s book is Amer­i­ca’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Ara­bists and the Shap­ing of the Mod­ern Mid­dle East.

Con­sid­er­ing that Israel has seemed to be Amer­i­ca’s best friend in the Mid­dle East for decades, it would not have ever occurred to me that the CIA once had high-lev­el oper­a­tives who were pro-Arab. Yet Wil­ford found in his research that indeed, Amer­i­can agents like Roo­sevelt and Miles Copeland (father of the for­mer Police drum­mer Stu­art Copeland) were fas­ci­nat­ed with the British empire and the “exot­ic” Mid­dle East; they were ori­en­tal­ists who read Rud­yard Kipling and T.E. Lawrence and want­ed to chase adven­ture as spies doing good work for their coun­try. They learned Ara­bic and cre­at­ed a group called Amer­i­can Friends of the Mid­dle East—a name far more benev­o­lent than the activ­i­ties of that group sug­gest (if you want to know the details, read Wil­ford’s book).

But after Wil­ford paint­ed a some­what rosy pic­ture of a band of Amer­i­can elite recruits mak­ing mis­chief in places where, as Robert Baer sug­gest­ed, we per­haps had no busi­ness, mod­er­a­tor Robert Scheer asked repeat­ed­ly why it seemed that CIA actions and pre­dic­tions had so often been wrong, as if the agents were “stu­pid” despite appear­ing to be quite edu­cat­ed. Robert Baer insist­ed that fre­quent­ly the raw intel pro­duced by agents on the ground was good—that the peo­ple with exper­tise had good sources, were knowl­edge­able and were telling it like it is, but up the chain of com­mand their supe­ri­ors did­n’t want to hear it, just did­n’t want to know the truth.

Any­one remem­ber the case of WMDs in Iraq, when the White House clear­ly had an agen­da and seemed to be ignor­ing CIA reports? This dis­in­for­ma­tion had two com­po­nents: weapons of mass destruc­tion and Iraqi plans for ter­ror­ism against the US with sleep­er cells.  The first has been debunked and the sec­ond has been ignored, even though the US went through mas­sive quan­ti­ties of Iraqi gov­ern­ment and Baath par­ty doc­u­ments, with­out any evi­dence of Iraqi plans or prepa­ra­tions to attack the Unit­ed States.

As Baer insist­ed more than once dur­ing the forum, often it was a mat­ter of bureau­crats at the CIA get­ting paid every two weeks who want to keep their jobs and get pro­mo­tions. They don’t want to rock the boat. From whom then are they tak­ing their orders?

Former CIA case manager Robert Baer

The State Depart­ment and the White House, said Baer.**

In the case of Iraq, it would appear that CIA agents func­tioned as min­ions of George W. Bush White House for­eign policy.

So much for the CIA being a rogue agency. In fact, Baer made it sound as if Lan­g­ley runs a prac­ti­cal­ly bum­bling oper­a­tion half the time, which com­plete­ly belies the facts when you look where CIA covert actions have been effec­tive (coups engi­neered in Iran, Chile, Guatemala and else­where). But Baer dis­par­aged covert oper­a­tions, say­ing that they were gen­er­al­ly a path down­hill in your career, that the good agents do not want to go out on covert ops.

(While Baer said many in the CIA dis­dained the failed Bay of Pigs oper­a­tion under Kennedy, he placed the blame on the Kennedy Admin­is­tra­tion, despite the fact that the CIA cooked up the plan dur­ing the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion, under Eisenhower.)

So how did the ear­ly CIA go from empathiz­ing with the Arab peo­ple to becom­ing so hat­ed for its obvi­ous med­dling? After all, Kim Roo­sevelt et al were friend­ly with and sup­port­ed Egyp­t’s beloved Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In real­i­ty CIA Ara­bists were sym­pa­thet­ic to Arab elites, most of whom were cor­rupt auto­crats.  And while they may have seemed sup­port­ive of the pan-Arab nation­al­ism that Nass­er cham­pi­oned, the CIA also backed the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood to foil Nasser.

The con­sen­sus, empha­sized by Baer, was that Amer­i­can agents and case man­agers were far more like­ly to have rela­tion­ships with those at the top, while ignor­ing the needs of the masses.

Journalist/editor Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer had inter­viewed Ker­mit Roo­sevelt about his years in the CIA in 1978, when the lat­ter was aging and bedrid­den. He described Roo­sevelt as a man of good cheer who thought the CIA worked with the best inten­tions in mind. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good inten­tions. What hap­pens when our intel is wrong, when the CIA bun­gles the job? You have the deba­cle that Iraq became; you have an agency that com­plete­ly failed to pro­tect the coun­try from the events of 9/11—and one that did not pre­dict the Arab Spring. As Robert Baer frankly admit­ted, “I did­n’t under­stand [what was real­ly going on in] Iraq, I still don’t.”

Regard­ing the events of 9/11, Baer and Scheer con­curred that we still don’t know the truth. The lat­ter belit­tled the 9/11 Com­mis­sion Report, say­ing it was as flawed as the War­ren Com­mis­sion Report on the assas­si­na­tion of John F. Kennedy. Baer won­dered how on earth the 15 Saud­is got into the U.S. in the first place. He sug­gest­ed that they were “han­dled” by oper­a­tives but did not explain further.

A vig­or­ous ques­tion and answer ses­sion ensued after Wil­ford, Baer and Scheer talked amongst them­selves on stage, at the West­wood Hills church. Peo­ple seemed to want to like Robert Baer; I was sur­prised he did not face more hos­til­i­ty, as many of those who spoke out were clear­ly crit­i­cal of the CIA.

Said Dick Platkin, an activist with LA Jews for Peace, “I enjoyed the forum but I was both­ered by the under­tone that we need smart CIA agents instead of stu­pid ones who are lim­it­ed by Wash­ing­ton politi­cians. I think smart ones could be far worse in extend­ing the reach and effec­tive­ness of the US empire.”

My one ques­tion con­cerned Israel’s attack on the USS Lib­er­ty, an intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing ship sta­tioned off the coast of Israel in 1967 that took fire from both the Israeli Air Force and Israeli Navy. Dur­ing pro­longed bomb­ing and straf­ing, more than 30 Amer­i­can ser­vice­men were killed. Clear­ly this was an act of war, yet Israel issued an apol­o­gy, insist­ing they had mis­tak­en the ship for an Egypt­ian vessel—this despite the fact that the Lib­er­ty was fly­ing the Amer­i­can flag.

While Baer was crit­i­cal of Israel’s actions and lament­ed the deaths of our per­son­nel, he was not able to explain the pol­i­cy deci­sions that led to the John­son Admin­is­tra­tion accept­ing Israel’s apol­o­gy. John­son would brush the inci­dent under the rug, and the U.S. has hard­ly protest­ed any of Israel’s mil­i­tary actions in the Mid­dle East since that time.

If you want to under­stand the CIA, it will cer­tain­ly help to read the works of Wil­ford and Baer, but you will not find all the answers to the U.S.-MiddleEast conun­drum. And as Baer admit­ted to me pri­vate­ly at the end of the night, “I don’t have any answers.” More like­ly, his for­mer employ­ers will not per­mit him to speak freely, except to share the most innocu­ous or enter­tain­ing infor­ma­tion. Unless and until we demand to know more, we shall con­tin­ue to be enthralled at the movies by the CIA’s mys­te­ri­ous oper­a­tives, but will not learn what they do in our name.

* See the For­eign Pol­i­cy report by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimi­an, dat­ed June 20 2017.

** More like­ly the tail is wag­ging the dog—the CIA does the dirty work for U.S. big busi­ness inter­ests, and there­fore the State Depart­ment and the White House are in the CIA’s thrall.