"For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." - Newton’s third law of motion.
A new book by University of California historian Hugh Wilford reveals how two CIA fixers, Archie Roosevelt and Miles Copeland, almost single-handedly subverted the Arab world and Iran along with U.S. interests there. Reviewing America’s Great Game: The CIA’s secret Arabists and the shaping of the modern Middle East, Levantine hand Charles Glass recommends Wilford’s “absorbing account of romantics enchanted by Kiplingesque myths … who cynically harbored the self-contradictory ambition of democratizing [the region] while arrogating all decisions to themselves.” The author reveals how Copeland and Roosevelt launched civil wars in Lebanon and Yemen while financing Islamist groups against nationalists and leftists they regarded as threats to American imperium. Their seismic intrigues included the overthrow in 1953 of Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s freely elected Prime Minister who had offended the West by nationalizing the country’s petroleum fields.
The coup, which was followed by the retrenchment of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, made Persian crude safe for foreign exploitation but it also greased the rails for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Shiite revolution that convulses the region today.
In his otherwise thoughtful review, Glass characterizes Copeland and Roosevelt as rogue agents who “did more to mold the modern Middle East than the so-called policy-makers in Washington.” In fact, the decision to take down Mossadegh came directly from then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a foul, paranoid kingmaker who saw the communist menace flickering in his postprandial tumblers of Old Overholt and who despised leaders he could not control.
Nor was there anything particularly rogue or exceptional about Dulles. The history of empire is lousy with apparatchiks and overlords unable to anticipate the consequences of their own bone-headed behavior. In the eleventh century A.D., for example, the kingdoms of England and France - unprovoked, and with the imprimatur of a rapacious Catholic Church - laid siege to the Arab-controlled Levant, unleashing two centuries of war that ended in ruins for the aggressors. A thousand years later those same powers unilaterally partitioned the Arab world and in the process set aside a particularly coveted parcel of land for a Jewish state. The result has been a century of war, autocracy, and economic decay - an inheritance that grows more toxic by the day.
In both cases the aggrandizing powers failed to consider the ancillary costs of their actions and learned nothing from their mistakes. Indeed, in 1920 French General Henri Gouraud, having subdued Syrian militias resisting his advance on Damascus, famously rested his boot on the tomb of Saladin, the twelfth-century hero of the anti-crusaders forces, and declared “Arise, we have returned.” Only for a time, as it turned out.
The CIA isn’t much for self-reflection either. To this day, its role in Mossadegh’s destruction has been withheld from the State Department’s official history of U.S. Iran policy and the agency has refused to make public its own account of the upheaval. Such stonewalling has provided cover for primitives in Congress who deny a CIA role in the coup as part of their efforts to derail President Obama’s outreach to Tehran.
Such are the occluding properties of dominion. The laws of unintended consequences, like Newtonian physics, are as unyielding as the refusal among militarists to acknowledge causality between policy and reprisal. This unwillingness was expressed most grotesquely in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when America’s ruling elites rejected any suggestion - including those made by Osama bin Laden itself - that the attacks were in response to U.S. Middle East policy. As the late intellectual Tony Judt put it in his final book, “I was struck [after 9/11] by this perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion.”
American wars waged in the postwar era, according to the U.S. Congress and Brown University, are estimated to have cost as much as $7 trillion in constant 2011 dollars. The human toll, as calculated in a 2012 Washington Post study, could number some six million dead. Carnage on such a scale begs for a reduced U.S. role in global affairs rather than a larger one. Yet the war on context - a propaganda war that provides oxygen for the real thing - is well underway, particularly in Asia. Writing in the New York Times this week, Tuong Lai, an adviser to two Vietnamese prime ministers appealed to Americans to redeem the vision of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh: an American-Vietnamese alliance in Asia. That includes, he wrote, “the sort of close economic and military relations Ho had wanted after World War II …. That is the only way to defeat the new Chinese expansionism.”
As with similar entreaties from Asian states for the U.S. to deepen its already vast military commitments in the region, Tuong’s intentions are cleverly unburdened by context. By understating the magnitude of America’s decade-long quagmire in Indochina, he hopes to make palatable a U.S. cold war, if not a hot one, with China itself. Sadly, there are plenty of interested parties in Washington - as short on memory and perspective as their are long on power and influence - who would indulge them.