Every once in a while I like to read a really old book about what things were like in my youth before I paid so much attention to world politics. “The Ugly American” has long been a euphemism for the kind of American traveler who is insensitive to local culture, but when I picked up Lederer and Burdicks’ old novel by that title, I found it wasn’t about that at all, and in fact did explain a lot about the kind of political thinking that brought us both Vietnam and the Peace Corps. The story is about the imaginary country of Sarkan somewhere in Indochina, the domino theory, and winning hearts and minds. That was so much fun I read their 1965 sequel, Sarkan. Which is a perfect lead-in to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, about behind-the-scenes U.S. /British 1960’s spy vs. spy competition in southeast Asia.
This weekend I have picked up something on the Middle East, Miles Copeland’s The Game of Nations published in 1969 about the events in the Middle East from 1947 through the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The title reminded me of a chapter title about Jordan’s first King Abdullah in Kamal Salibi’s The Modern History of Jordan as well as Kipling’s espionage/spirituality novel Kim, where the protagonist learns about the “great game” while traveling with a holy man in search of a particularly spiritual river. Which, trust me on this, brings us through to the Palestinians.
The Game of Nations starts with the British announcement of their withdrawal from the “Pax Britannica” in the Middle East, withdrawing from Greece and Turkey at the beginning of the Cold War. American analysts scrambled to fill the void, as the wartime Office of Strategic Services changed to the Central Intelligence Group, which became the CIA, and America began to dabble in world change. In the fashion of someone sitting down to a poker game where they don’t know the players, Americans first tried betting a small hand, a military coup in Syria, believing that conflict with Arab countries was “almost entirely due to mischievous or misguided leadership.” The result was the Husni Za’im coup of 1949, followed by the Hennawi coup of 1949 masterminded by Shishakli, who ran the country through a series of front-men until he came to power in 1951, only to flee the country in another coup in 1954, until “”even those of us who know it well are unable to keep track of which predator is currently in charge.” Okay, so that was the Syria regime-change thing. Trust me, I’m still getting to the Palestinians.
Then we come to the Egypt. America had played out their regime-change hand in Syria and the result was massive instability. So in Egypt, still looking for the “right kind of leader” they formulated a series of “political realities” they believed any leader would have to observe to stay in power. One of them was a common enemy.
In this part of the world, Bertand Russell’s observation particularly applied: “A common peril is much the easiest way of producing homogeneity.” Elsewhere, Arab leaders were using the fear of Israel to bring about a degree of national unity; we saw no way of avoiding use of the same means in Egypt, provided there was minimal danger of stimulating emotions that might get out of hand–and the likelihood of this seemed small in view of the terrible defeat the Egyptian Army had received from the Israelis in the war in 1948. Besides, there seemed little chance of successfully promoting a leader who would not make use of the Arab-Israeli issue.
So this is what the U.S. was looking for in its search for the “Moslem Billy Graham”– someone who would use the Palestinians as a stepping stone for Egypt’s political stability. In behind the scenes talks with Nasser’s people before the successful coup, Nasser nixed that idea that “regaining Palestine” is a top priority in any given country.
After five years of tuning in on barrack-room conversation and talking individually to hundreds of officers, however, Nasser and his lieutenants decided almost the opposite. They realized that it might serve some later purpose to speak of “mobilizing Egypt’s resources so as to redress the wrongs of Palestine,” but that in early 1952 …their resentments were “against our own superior officers, other Arabs, the British and the Israelis–in that order.”
After Nasser’s successful Egyptian coup, his people were again in touch with American diplomats and eventually they came around to the American view of the necessity of using Israel as the scapegoat to unite the country:
This was followed up by more public assurances from the coup’s father figure, General Naguib, who at one point got carried away and passed the word to us that he ‘wasn’t interested in Palestine‘, although he called Ambassador Caffery only a few hours later to withdraw the statement and substitute for it something less suited to public consumption in the United States, but more in line with what Nasser, and we, knew was required for the new government to gain public acceptance.
So the Americans are the ones who took the lead in using the issue of Palestine as the common foe to unite Egyptians and provide the stability necessary to secure the strategic interest of Suez.
I still have another two hundred pages to go in the book, but I rather like Copeland so far. He doesn’t mind “disillusioning the public” or “revealing a lot of information which had best be forgotten” or “needlessly puncturing a view of our Government which it is best for the public to have.”
One thing I have been disillusioned about. When I was a senior in high school, we took a trip to the U.N. In our applications for the trip we had to write an essay about either zero population growth or world peace. Comparing notes later, all my friends wrote about zero population growth. I wrote about the “Report From Iron Mountain” hoax. It purported to be a report of policy thinkers who got together and discussed the economic benefits of WWII and decided that for economic reasons world peace was not desirable. After the expected outcry, the Iron Mountain report was revealed to be a hoax.
But it wasn’t a hoax after all. The “Peace Game” was real. In his book Copeland reveals it took place around a conference table in a Washington office of the State Department known as the “Games Center”. Author Miles Copeland knew Nasser personally and played the part of Nasser as the United States government “gamed out” international trends to predict their outcomes.
So from this can we infer the U.S. government believes that the other countries of the Middle East will always need a Palestine in turmoil to ensure their stability?