Cloak and Dagger Politics

A new book argues that western spies shaped the modern Middle East.

C astles Made of Sand: A Century of Anglo-American Espionage and Intervention in the Middle East is a swashbuckling saga. It is the story of generations of imperial and colonial rogues who the author claims bludgeoned and intimidated unsuspecting Middle Eastern leaders—indeed, figuratively raped and humiliated them—into serving British and American interests, plus their own often pecuniary appetites. As such, it makes great and easy reading. Personalities who did not understand and did not want to understand the region, who lived in a world where Arabs were regarded as a lesser species, whose imaginations too often rested on simplistic stereotyping (if not out-and-out fantasy) called the shots for too long, according to André Gerolymatos.

The consequence has been, and still is, deep suspicion of western motives among those who see themselves victimized not only as individuals but also as states, a result of “conspiracy theories legitimized over time and by sheer repetition.” The touchstones for such theories are the all-too-real Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, when European Christians conquered Jerusalem and ruled the Levant. To a modern western readership it may seen incomprehensible that these medieval events live on in Arab memory as vividly today as if they had occurred yesterday, but such is the case. In today’s rhetoric, Israel, under the protection of the United States, is perceived in the region as the new Crusader state. And George W. Bush’s iteration of his war on terror as a “crusade” played directly to Osama bin Laden’s argument that American intervention in the area is bent on the domination, if not the obliteration, of Islam.

Against such a rich tapestry of hostility and suspicion, Gerolymatos then illustrates his central thesis: that covert operations by, mainly, American and British sources have been central to the direction politics and society have taken in the Middle East. He adds detail to this thesis by asserting that many of these covert operations were directed more by rogue individuals within the secret services of their countries than by the governments that were notionally in charge of the intelligence systems.

But it is here he fails. Many of his examples demonstrate, despite his claims to the contrary, that the secret services were operating under direction of their governments, as with the CIA in Afghanistan, or were not even members of the clandestine world that so fascinates Gerolymatos, as with Orde Wingate in Palestine.

When he detaches himself from the flamboyance of characters, the author argues convincingly that despite their aversion to Islamic activism, Britain and the United States, the imperial powers within the author’s viewfinder, have not hesitated to use and manipulate Muslim radicalism when they could and when it suited them, as when confronting, for example, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, where they armed and trained Islamists to counter Soviet expansionism. Contrary to American expectations, the mujahedeen, who had learned the tradecraft of espionage, sabotage and warfare from them, then turned their skills against their former sponsors. The author maintains the resulting chaos was a direct result of Washington’s blinkered meddling and mismanagement.

Much of this thesis of duplicity and betrayal is valid and it is repeatedly rehearsed in this volume, reinforced by the colourful exploits of imperial agents, who seem endlessly to fascinate Gerolymatos. He covers the period from the dying days of the Ottoman Empire to the present. The reader moves from Gertrude Bell in Mesopotamia, Orde Wingate in Palestine, St. John Philby in Arabia and Kermit Roosevelt Jr. in Egypt to John Foster Dulles in Washington, to name but a few.

He comes close, but only close, to the mark that rogue intelligence officers like Philby, the father of the infamous Cold War British spy Kim Philby, dominated the landscape and determined outcomes without reference to their political masters.

St. John Philby was a highly intelligent, irascible geographer, British public servant and intelligence officer who spoke five West Asian languages. He was assigned the task of keeping Ibn Saud neutral during the First World War so that the British could pursue their alliance with his sworn enemy, Sharif Hussein of Mecca. When it suited him, however, Philby consciously undermined British policy, promoting his friend Ibn Saud’s interests and his own. He acted on behalf of Standard Oil of California, having failed to entice the Iraq Petroleum Company into the kingdom. He assured himself handsome monthly stipends, signing bonuses and much else. Gerolymatos describes his intentions as “a combination of greed, ego and … revenge against Britain’s Middle East policies.” Philby was pathologically anti-Zionist.

The author shoots wide of the mark, however, in his attempts to paint Orde Wingate as part of the subterranean world of espionage. A British Army officer, Wingate became passionately convinced of the rightness of Zionism within weeks of his arrival in British-administered Palestine in 1936. He focused on the performance of Arab guerrillas who operated against the Zionists and the British, attributing their success to the fact that they operated at night. Lesson learned, he recommended that Jews and British operate in joint patrols during those same hours and despite reluctance won the support of his superiors. He commanded fewer than 200 men in his “Night Squads” but was highly effective in empowering and training Zionist forces, offshoots of which would later move against the British and Mandate forces.

Gerolymatos is highly adept at capturing the flash and colour of such eccentric individuals, describing Wingate as “a bearded and pith-helmet-wearing British officer, with mismatched socks and twin revolvers slung over his hips, leading a ragged band of Jewish fighters and a handful of British soldiers.” But Wingate does not meet Gerolymatos’s most demanding criterion. He was no spy lurking in the dark world of espionage. He was openly a British military officer, acting with determination and conviction, and with the authority of Sir Archibald Wavell, the British Force commander. He was widely known and publicized in the open by Zionists at the time, just as he was despised by the Palestinian Arabs.

The author cannot have it all ways: is this a book about spies and rogue activists, or one about imperial ambition and public servants doing their job, competently or not? What it turns out to be is a highly informative but less satisfying mélange of both approaches.

To be sure, spies do lurk in these pages and intelligence agencies sometimes do act, if not contrary to their government’s wishes, at least with an unauthorized over-reaching vigour. Witness the CIA’s role in the coup that brought down the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and brought the army to power in the person of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Gerolymatos describes it well: “At a meeting in March 1952, four months before the military takeover, Nasser and Kermit Roosevelt met. The Egyptian colonel “confirmed for Roosevelt that there would be a coup and asked the Americans if the United States would abstain from interfering. It was also agreed that U.S. recognition of the new Egyptian regime would include a private understanding that the ‘preconditions for democratic government did not exist and wouldn’t exist for many years.’ References to ‘reestablishing democratic processes’ and ‘truly representative government’ would be reserved for public consumption only.”

The Nasser coup merits quotation at length because it describes so well American influence, although there is no hint that this was a rogue spy operation and indeed the very content of the discussions suggests a carefully calibrated American role directed from the highest levels.

One is never quite sure, however, whether the author intends us to believe that the Nasser dictatorship was in itself evil, whether the American government’s facilitation of his accession was the problem, whether the CIA clandestinely engineered the whole thing or whether a hands-off policy leaving King Farouk in place would have better suited the interests of Egyptians. And that is both the strength and weakness of Castles Made of Sand.

Reviewing this book, while watching the riveting events in Egypt today, leaves little doubt that there were conspiracies within conspiracies in Hosni Mubarak’s departure, just as there were with King Farouk’s demise in 1952. It seems quite clear that the Americans played an important role in this reversal, despite denials. Such is the nature of international politics on strategic questions of critical importance. Leaders may feel compelled to lie about their actions publicly, but such events should come as no surprise. International politics is always played in the grey zone.

We can soon expect details to leak on the nature of U.S. contacts with the players in Cairo over the past few months. This will doubtless show clandestine CIA activity, as well as a significant role for senior members of the American armed forces played out behind the screen. But how else could an outside power act? Playing this out before the cameras on Al Jazeera and CNN negates the very idea of diplomacy, which by its nature requires confidences kept, options debated and action taken behind closed doors. One can argue that that practice should change—and indeed the cynicism demonstrated by the Eisenhower administration in ensuring Nasser’s rise to power is chilling—but no institution, company or government operates much differently. In this context Gerolymatos’s thesis can be taken as a lament that subterfuge is part of the human condition.

Perhaps the rigour I am looking for is demanding too much in a volume of only some 200 pages of text designed to give us the rich flavour of events as well as their substance, which the author backs up, to his credit, with an impressive array of sourcing. Between the covers there are also 140 pages of notes, references and chronologies that attest to an assiduous mind and a knowledgeable author. But this forced marriage between narrative and analysis should best lead the reader to view Castles Made of Sand as a fact-based whodunit.

Disappointing in this context is that the volume contains no concluding chapter or summing up. We are simply dropped with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence organization’s intrigues in support of the Taliban, which leaves us asking why the assertions rippling through the text are never collated, instead being left as a series of unconnected narrative strands. We are never really sure if the author’s aim is to critique a) western intelligence agencies, b) western governments or c) intelligence agencies generally, whether in the region or from the imperial centre.

The book is most satisfying if one focuses on its narrative nuggets. The fate of the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, provides one, perhaps somewhat ghoulish, example. The chapter devoted to the Brotherhood provides much detail on Qutb’s execution, beginning with an almost poetic narrative: “On dank mornings at the end of August, the wind carries the flavors and scents of the desert to Cairo. Overnight, the sand sucks up the cool moisture…”

Gerolymatos then proceeds to describe Qutb’s dress and the executioner’s mood: “The prisoner in the special cell block of Tura prison, however, seemed almost impervious to his fate: wearing the traditional red burlap pyjamas of a condemned man, he waited with resignation.” Of more relevance is Nasser’s decision to send Anwar Sadat (then a senior military officer and later to become Nasser’s successor) at five minutes to midnight to offer Qutb a way out. Sadat offered him his life if he would appeal the sentence that had condemned him. This he refused, so the executioner pulled the rope, leaving Nasser to cope with hostile reaction on the street.

What does become clear while reading this book is that the West has for decades viewed the broader Middle East as a vast area in need of outside direction and guardianship. This direction and guardianship took the extreme action of carving up the region after World War One in order to ensure that the British and French victors acquired sufficient territory and resources to satisfy their perceived needs and ambitions, the needs of inhabitants being very much secondary. Each superpower has harnessed those countries within their spheres of influence to fend off the bogeymen of the day—the Ottomans, the Nazis, the Cold War antagonists and now the Islamic fundamentalists—to assure access to oil and safe throughways to coveted markets. Never have they asked what the people of the region wanted.