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

This review was first published at the New York Journal of Books.

Reviewed by: Erin Solaro

“. . . deep flaws of omission . . .”

With minor exceptions, most of America’s post-Vietnam interventions have been on behalf of Muslims, usually Muslim Arabs, often in an attempt to save them from themselves or the consequences of their actions. (Incidentally, although the Yom Kippur War is beyond the scope of this book, American support for Israel then probably prevented a catastrophe in the Arab world far beyond that of the Mongol invasions. Adjusted for population, Israeli losses during Yom Kippur were the equivalent of America suffering all its Vietname casualties within a week. Facing defeat and extermination, Israel would have taken the Arab world down with them: The mind quails at the thought of what a nuclear strike on the Aswan Dam would have done to Egypt.) Understandably, they have not been grateful.

Unfortunately, this important, engaging, and readable book also provides an inadequate explanation of the roots of this misguided foreign policy. It is the central thesis of Wilford’s book that, “The story of CIA involvement in the Arab world during the early years of the Cold War is therefore, in part at least, one of an internal struggle between two contradictory influences: the British imperial legacy and the American missionary tradition. If the latter, more moralistic, idealistic impulse shaped the Agency’s earlier operations, it was the former—comparatively pragmatic, realistic, even cynical—that eventually came to dominate, with the Iran coup acting as a sort of tipping point.”

America’s relationship with the Middle East, both in the longer term beyond the scope of Dr. Wilford’s book, and in the larger scope of the Cold War, calls the accuracy of this thesis into doubt. There are several possible approaches to the history of American involvement in the Middle East. Dr. Wilford has chosen the entirely legitimate device of a biographical approach. But there is a limit to what you can leave out.

America’s Great Game is biographically centered upon a trio of romantic adventurers. Two were cousins, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt Jr. and Archie Roosevelt Jr., both grandsons of President Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom sought to make their own contributions to the family name. The third was an outsider to American elite society, Miles Copeland, a CIA officer who claims to have been a talented amateur musician, claims that must be viewed with some skepticism given his willingness to take liberties with the truth, whether for personal or operational reasons—although he is in fact the father of distinguished musician Stewart Copeland.

Although these men were different individuals, each also saw himself as playing a later-day Great Game, this one a contest between Americans, rather than British, and the Soviets, rather than Russians, for control of strategic resources. Rudyard Kipling, the British poet laureate and bard of the British Empire, was a Roosevelt family friend; Kermit Jr. chose his name Kim from Kipling’s novel of the same name. Indeed, as a child, Kim had regaled his tutor with stories about his childhood in Lahore, India—stories that were lifted from Kim.

And while America had a long history of religiously-inspired, humane benevolence in the Middle East, all three men would share in what would become the credo of mid-century America: that we were an exceptional nation, entitled to meddle in other nations’ politics and future.

It is not far-fetched to suspect that the tradition of muscular, generally Protestant, Christianity in which all these men were, to varying degrees, raised influenced their transitions from idealism to cynicism, sympathy with Arab nationalism to manipulation of Arabs and Persians—although of course the manipulation went the other way as well. Cynicism and idealism are not mutually exclusive, especially in the context of an overwhelming geopolitical reality of the early post-World War Two era.

That overwhelming reality was the Cold War and a sense of its importance is largely missing from America’s Great Game. Referring to Kim Roosevelt’s own concerns of creating an Occidental-Oriental hostility in his 1949 book Arabs, Oil and History Wilford asks, “Just what was Kim Roosevelt thinking when he carried out the Iran coup operation of August 19, 1953?” an operation that looms large in the relationship of the Middle East to America.

He goes on to answer, “Yet [his writings do not convey] the sense of intense, ideological anticommunism detectable in statements by other US Middle East hands from the early Cold War. . . . Other factors, of a cultural and psychological rather than political nature, seem to have been more important in shaping Kim’s behavior toward Iran.”

The fact is that no matter what length you write at, you can’t say everything. But this is a profound flaw in America’s Great Game that could have been resolved by several pages of explication about the Cold War.

Wilford is correct that cultural and psychological factors led members of America’s elite, such Kim Roosevelt, to believe that they could replace the old Anglo-French colonial regimes in the Middle East—first with something new, and then with something that would bear more than a passing resemblance to those old regimes.

All imperial powers, and the United States is one such (in that it takes it upon itself to intervene in the affairs of other nations) have elites that think they should rule over their inferiors; however, US foreign policy was shaped by the reality of the Cold War between itself and the Soviet Union, which was often expansionist and had been quite genuinely and terribly evil. CIA officers like Kim Roosevelt dreaded being asked questions like, “Who lost Iran?”

This was not simply because they feared malevolent clowns like Senator McCarthy, briefly mentioned in this book—although not for his chief accomplishment of giving responsible, adult anti-Communism a bad name—but because they felt a genuine, if muscularly Christian and thus culture-bound, sense of responsibility for the world and its civilizations.

A similar failure of omission attends to Wilford’s handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is a minor but important subtheme of this book. His attempts to distinguish anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism in the aftermath of the Holocaust are specious, given that he notes US journalist Dorothy Thompson’s objections to Jewish “acts of terrorism against the British [and] harsh treatment of Palestinian Arabs.”

Wilford writes sympathetically of Arab nationalism—even though Arab nationalists also attacked British troops—and never mentions the wave of expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews from Muslim countries. Indeed, the modern Arab world’s fixation on Israel as a distraction from the failure of its elites to create a workable future has done nothing to create an independent Palestine, only further distracted Arabs and their elites from creating workable societies.

These deep flaws of omission leave the reader with the distasteful sense that Professor Wilford wishes he, too, had been a player America’s Great Game. Such emotions on the part of an author are entirely natural, even normal. But when the author does not understand them, acknowledge them, and control them, they can also deeply flaw the work as part of the quest for historical understanding writ large. And so it is here.

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Citizen-based Immigration Reform

America is once again tying itself in knots about immigration reform. In truth, it’s not a difficult problem if you really want to end the practice of importing people while recognizing that their only crime has been to believe in the American dream while being exploited themselves.

Because surplus labor benefits capital.

That’s why America (and many countries) have the immigration problem they do. Both legal and illegal immigrants have little job security and can be exploited by their employers. And the corporations like it that way.

I’ve published an excellent essay on how to resolve the immigration problem—if in fact Americans object to having nearly 10% of the work force in this exploitable position—without creating an endless pool of immigrants.

The title is #Fixing Immigration.

Why I Knit: Part 2

There’s a bumper sticker that says, I knit so I don’t kill people. A more genteel way to put it is, I knit to stay sane. (For knitting, as always, you may substitute any craft you practice, particularly to mastery.)

I once attended a knit night at a yarn shop and asked if there was a connection between knitting and sanity or at least the act of imposing a rational order upon an incoherent mind, and a woman wearing a beautiful sweater (her work, of course), told me, “I think every one of us has a strong streak of the obsessive-compulsive.”


I don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I do have a streak of both obsessions and compulsions and I found myself deliberately using knitting to satisfy that streak. When I feel the need to do something over and over again, I pick up my knitting. When I feel my attention wandering from my writing, I pick up my knitting to refocus my mind. The necessity I feel to do things right, perfect, has led to me making garments that look right and fit me well. Something that could have been very damaging to me, especially during very difficult times, has now become a useful skill, a source of beauty and satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that dealing with mental illness is so easy, it’s not: when the organ that is causing the problems is also the organ responsible for resolving those problems, it can be horrendously difficult. People with OCD, for example, often recognize their behaviors and thoughts as irrational and are extremely distressed by them. That does not mean that they can control their obsessions and compulsions, much less expunge them.

Yet much therapy for mental illness involves sufferers learning to change and control their thoughts and emotions, to strengthen their intellects so that they can master the weird and self-destructive thoughts and emotions we all have. This is because most of what is called mental illness is not a genuine illness deeply rooted in brain chemistry and physiology, such as schizophrenia, for whom medication can be a lifeline. Psychoactive medication can also be extremely helpful in stabilizing a person’s emotions so that they can function—and even live. However, much of mental illness, particularly depression, is not an organic problem, per se. It is a problem of living.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 in 10 American adults suffers from depression, with a higher incidence of major depression in those who are

  • persons 45-64 years of age
  • women
  • blacks, Hispanics, non-Hispanic persons of other races or multiple races
  • persons with less than a high school education
  • those previously married
  • individuals unable to work or unemployed
  • persons without health insurance coverage

We may be sure that underrepresented in those suffering from major depression are people with a secure and stable life with interesting satisfying work that they know will not vanish when a corporate board somewhere decides that profits—to be swallowed up in the CEO’s salary—are more important than the human beings all profits depend upon. We may be sure that those underrepresented amongst those suffering from major depression are not those who experience racism and not those who experience sexual violence, for which they are also belittled and blamed. The suicides of people like James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense—who was in fact emotionally shattered when President Truman asked for his resignation when it became clear that Forrestal was suffering severe depression caused by the operational fatigue known to be quite common during World War Two—are actually rather rare. Forrestal had the friends and the means to continue to lead a life of extraordinary accomplishment and satisfaction. He apparently lost a long-term battle with his demons and could no longer bear to live with them. This does not apply to the rise in suicide rates that does with recession and economic hardship, the suffering caused by austerity: these suicides are the refusal of human beings to live in the degradation that deemed their lot by the greedy and the cruel.

Freud famously described depression as anger turned inward and it is: the anger of being required to live far too small a life, the anger of feeling your society doesn’t need your energy, your talent, even your spending power, much less for you to live a complete life in which you contribute to your society. Depression is turning inward the absolutely justified anger of our society wanting us to be so much less than we could and should be. And depression is also shame for the state to which we have been reduced. And while there appears to be a strong genetic component to obsessive compulsion and OCD itself, these behaviors are also a horribly perverse, destructive twisting of the human need to control our lives.

Indeed, the misslabelling of tens of millions of Americans as mentally ill when their behavior is an absolutely reasonable response to the conditions under which we are forced to live is reminiscent of Soviet-era psychiatric abuse of dissidents. The singular difference is that dissidents were arrested and forcibly confined and forcibly drugged and otherwise tortured by the KGB. Of course, conditioning help upon ingestion of psychoactive drugs is coercive in itself, and some segments of society, most notably the military, use mental illness to stigmatize, marginalize and eliminate from professional and human consideration, those who are crime victims, particularly sex crime victims. Generally speaking, however, Americans are so unwilling to engage the socio-economic—which is to say the political—roots of much of what they are told is their private, personal mental illness that they accept these definitions. We have been told for so long that America is Number One, the freest and best place in the world to live, and any change in the status quo will put us on a fast track to Soviet-style economic totalitarianism that many of us, especially those terrified of losing what little they have, still believe it. While many more Americans are starting to realize this is a big, fat lie, many of us have lost our ability to create serious, alternative political movements and socio-economic standards: we comfort ourselves with drugs and alcohol, porn and learned helplessness.

Knitting—or any other craft practiced to mastery—is not a cure, per se, for America’s profound social and economic problems and the willful failure of our politics to create a workable future. Knitting, like other crafts practiced to mastery, is, however, a means to that end, just like psychoactive drugs when used appropriately under careful supervision, save people’s lives and help them function while they do the hard work of reasserting control over their own thoughts. It is a means to an end. However, knitting does something no psychoactive drug can do.

At the end of a project, you have something worthy of you. When you produce something beautiful, whether it is an intricate shawl or the simplest pullover, carefully fitted and finished, you are making a statement of your own worth. For the masters of the universe who currently rule us, virtually all of them sociopaths who cannot stop gorging themselves while others go hungry, their net worth is their money. And so they display it by buying and wearing things they do not have the slightest understanding of how to actually make: yachts and bespoke suits, watches whose movements are feats of aesthetic engineering.

For the knitter, too, to wear her work is also to display her net worth. Every well-executed, well-made garment or accessory represents intellect and perseverance and aesthetic sensibilities, as well as—often—the taming of demons in the service of creation.

As for all those who say, this thing is too beautiful for a hefalump like me to wear (a sentiment that is shockingly common), I can only say, Big Food wants you to be fat just as Big Pharma wants you to be drugged. It is time to apply your intellect and rationality, your sense of aesthetics and your discipline—all abundantly displayed in your work—to your body. You deserve to wear with pride your beautiful work, to display it appropriately.

This is not sufficient for a political movement, but being proud of our work, and the minds and bodies that created our work, is a necessary place to start. Until we conceive of ourselves as deserving a politics worthy of us, we cannot begin to create those politics.

Why I Knit, Part 1

In lieu of a coarser term, I knit to anger persons.

By which I do not mean, I knit to annoy real human beings with the click-click-click of my needles. (They don’t click.) Or with the movements of my arms: as a “production” and public-transport knitter, I have taught myself to knit with minimal motion, and if the movements of my fingers and forearm muscles annoy people, that’s their problem. They can play with their smartphones. Nor do I mean that I knit to annoy real human beings by bragging about what I produce, although I love to reply to those who ask me where I bought my top, I made it. (Then there are those who recognize the absolutely outrageous quality of a good hand knit and confront me: You made this! What yarn? What pattern? What needles? What is the gauge, or stitches per centimeter or inch?)

No, I knit to anger the corporations known as persons, who have flooded the world with so much cheap junk we are drowning in it, be it junk food or junk clothing. I knit to make my own clothing (this is what I mean by being a “production knitter”, rather than a real production knitter) because the results are so much better than anything I can buy. My choice of pattern, my choice of colors and material, my measurements, for well under $100 for most garments—for materials. As for the cost of my time, let us just say knitting is entertainment and a channel for OCD as well. Is it cost effective? Not if my competition is Wal-Mart or Target or H&M. In fact, however, I compare my work to Chanel, Dior, Hermes, and Big Pharma. Compared to their prices, my work is incredibly cost-effective. I am, after all, uninterested in producing the cheap and the disposable; I am interested in producing the beautiful and durable.

I knit to also, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph, make a political statement. I knit to deny the persons who are actually corporations producing junk, my money. I knit to deny them legitimacy. I knit to say not only, I can do better, but, What do I need you for? I knit to prove to my fellow citizens that we do not need junk.

If every one of us decided to make just some our own clothing, if every man and woman alike—for I am not saying women should do unpaid labor as family knitters and tailors; in fact, I am saying the opposite—made just one beautiful garment each season, what would happen to the corporations that get rich by selling us the cheap and quickly outmoded? What would happen if a man who wanted a sweater decided that he wasn’t going to buy a fleece thing that pilled and looked shabby and instead decided to knit Ronaldsay out of a good, hard, durable wool? This is would be a fun knit: just difficult enough to be interesting, and the wow-to-effort factor is incredible. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours to learn to make, in fact, if you joined a helpful knitting group of enablers and addicts. Cast-on, bind-off, knit, purl, left and right cable crosses (it looks like 8-stitch cables) every few rows. That’s it. Well, you do need to count. Maximilian, Jade Starmore’s rather Landsknecht-y pullover, is also seriously covetable and far easier than it looks. I plan to make that for me.

What happened if we all did this? What happened if each of us chose to master an important craft: sewing, gardening, butchery, preserving, carpentry, pottery, cooking, metalwork?

We would each produce some of the things we need and use every day. If we bought some or all the materials we used from our communities, particularly from local merchants and manufacturers, we would keep our money circulating within our communities. We would also be able to better evaluate so much of what we are sold at places like Wal-Mart and the Gap, Macy’s and Target as what it actually is. Junk, produced at a terrible cost in human lives and dignity, be it of those exploited even unto death, of the unemployed and underemployed here in America and every other country where corporations and their profits are regarded as more important than human beings—including the human beings without whom no corporation can exist, much less be profitable.

Below is approximately a year’s production: I pulled stuff out of my closet, placed it on a white sheet and photographed it. I did not have the time to steam everything, the more so because it will just be folded back up and need to be steamed the next time I wear it.


Annie Modessit’s Corset Top, knit from a blend of cotton, cashmere, wool and viscose. I ought to wear it more often than I do—it is all that. I’ve never been able to photograph this properly; there is a certain sheen to the yarn that I think may not help.

I call this a Klingon Battle Dress Tunic; it’s actually a Vogue Knitting pattern knit from Schaeffer’s Susan, a sport-weight cotton in the colorway Althea Gibson. Handpainted yarns can pool in ways that are dreadful (known as Clown Barf) or delightful. I really ought to edge the arms with crochet; I love to wear this over a tank top and tight trousers or jeans.

This is a free Pierrot pattern knit from a blend of acrylic and cotton. I’ve decided that I really rather dislike soft yarns, like this one, because they pill too much. I’ll probably reknit this out of silk. I love to wear this over a particular green tank top and some really ugly cargo shorts.

A Jade Starmore pattern, Elizabeth the First; I ended up altering the off-the-shoulder neckline to something squarer and more in keeping with contemporary fashions. It’s knit from 50/50 silk/cashmere, which is soft but not that pilly.

These are my first pair of socks and my introduction to Noro, which I hate because of the knots. It’s an arch-shaped pattern that I had to alter to get right the heels, and my feet love because I have high arches; if you don’t, your feet probably won’t. I think there are more hand-knitted socks in my future.

I just finished this homage to Lilly Pulitzer. The pattern is Helga Isager’s Coral, and the body is 50/50 silk/linen; the accent is some nameless handpainted merino cashmere that I have about 40 g of scrap left. It’s a beautiful yarn that pills madly; for that matter, the silk/linen is more hairy than I like, but for a summer top, I can accept it. I thought this would be a tank top; it’s a mid-thigh tunic that I wear over loose culottes because it is very body conscious.

This is Carol Sunday’s Tapestry, modified to be a pullover rather than a cardigan. I knit in the round to the armholes and almost finished the back when my math went wrong, so I set it aside to do my summer knitting. The yarn was a really ugly flesh-colored, 50/50 silk/wool that I bought for $10/pound and overdyed a saffron red that is much deeper and browner than the picture shows.

Missing is a shawl, called Echoflowers, in a lovely orchid mercerized cotton and frosted iridescent amber glass beads that I gave to a friend before I thought to photograph it. Also on my needles is another Vogue pattern in a deep, dirty gold silk that is ribbed lace and cables. For details, I’m Warmare on Ravelry.


Clear Ideas for Difficult Times

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