Robert Gates, the Specialist

“I may be dangerous,” he said, “but I am not wicked. No, I am not wicked.”
– Henry James, The American

It was a failed administration’s ritual scapegoating, the ousting last winter of its ruinous secretary of defense. But in the sauve qui peut confirmation of his replacement – “The only thing that mattered,” said a Senate aide, “was that he was not Don Rumsfeld” – there was inadvertent irony.

With George W. Bush’s choice of ex-CIA Director Robert Gates to take over the Pentagon, this most uninformed of presidents unwittingly gave us back vital pages of our recent history. If Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the neoconservative claque in the second echelon of the administration are all complicit in today’s misrule, Gates personifies older, equally serious, if less recognized, less remembered abuses. His laden résumé offers needed evidence that Washington’s tortuous, torturing foreign policies did not begin with the Bush regime – and will not end with it.

While Rumsfeld’s record bared some of Washington’s uglier realities and revealed the depth of decay in the U.S. military, Gates’ long passage through the world of espionage and national security illuminates other dark corners – specters of the Cold War still haunting us, nether regions of flawed, corrupted intelligence, and the malignant legacy of foreign policy’s evil twin, covert intervention.

Like the Senate, the media welcomed Gates, in the words of the Christian Science Monitor, as the “Un-Rumsfeld.” In the wake of his flinty predecessor, he arrived as a smiling, silver-haired cherub of Midwestern earnestness. That image seemed borne out by his swift firings of ranking Army officials in the Walter Reed scandal, his apparent questioning of the value of the Pentagon’s notorious penal colony at Guantánamo, his more moderate (or at least conventionally diplomatic) rhetoric in the international arena, and even his heresy in mentioning respectfully – and quaintly – the Constitutional role of “the press” in a Naval Academy commencement address.

For all his relative virtues in 2007, however, Gates remains a genuine Jekyll-and-Hyde character, a best-yet-worst of America as it flung its vast power over the world. To appreciate who and what he was – and so who and what he is likely to be now, at one of the most critical junctures ever to face a secretary of defense – is to retrace much of the shrouded side of American foreign policy and intelligence for the last half-century or more. Most Americans hardly know that record, though its reckonings are with us today – with a vengeance. At the unexpected climax of his long career, the 63 year-old Gates faces not only the toll of the disastrous regime he joins, but of his own legacy as well.

This is a vintage American chronicle with dramatic settings and dark secrets. The cast ranges from hearty boosters in Kansas to bitter exiles on the Baltic, from doomed agents dropped behind Russian lines across Eurasia to Islamic clerics car-bombed in the Middle East – all in a family saga of long-hidden paternity. As with Donald Rumsfeld, such a sweeping history – the history, in this case, of that blind deity of havoc, the CIA – cannot come condensed or blog-sized. It is, necessarily, without apology, a long trail a-winding. Though in the end this will indeed be a profile of our new secretary of defense, much has to be understood before Gates even joins the story in a serious way as policy-accomplice and -maker. But the trip is full of color, and quicker than it seems. And as usual, the essential lessons, along with the devil, are in the details.

As with so many good stories, it begins on a train – two trains, in fact, crossing landscapes worlds apart, a great separation Robert Gates was heir to, revealing much about the man – and us.

“Heart of the Vortex”

One of the Santa Fe Railroad’s old diamond-stacked, wood-burning locomotives, chugging in off the Kansas prairie on what civic historians memorialized as “a dark and stormy night” in May 1872, was the making of Wichita. Finagled by boosters with government bonds and railroad-company influence, beginning a flow of private profit from public money and political favor that would be the hallmark of the town (and nation), the new tracks thrust the settlement ahead of competing sites as a lucrative depot for great cattle drives up the old Chisholm Trail.

Wichita, 180 clacking miles southwest of the Kansas City stockyards, would now become the “cow capital” of the plains. Even when barbed wire turned the droves of cattle toward Dodge City in the 1880s, the train saved the town, helping to transform it into a milling center for the surrounding sea of wheat. Raucous saloons, brothels, and gambling dens gave way to the white clapboard, civilized murmur and discreet hypocrisies of merchants and farmers, churches and schools.

A sizable pool of oil was discovered nearby in 1915, and a year later Wichita built its first airplane, just in time for the American entry into the Great War. Over the 1920s, with amiable banks within reach and a hungry workforce streaming out of the ragged farm economy, ex-military pilots and barnstormers opened 29 aircraft factories in what was now being touted as “the Air Capital of America.” The Depression killed some of those plants, but World War II and its Cold War sequel begat the giants – Boeing and Beech, Cessna and Learjet, feeding parasite payrolls like Raytheon’s and those of Wichita originals Pizza Hut and Coleman Camping.

By 1951, busy McConnell Air Force Base, its runways conveniently verging on Boeing’s, roared with the bounty of Cold War budgets. It was already home to a Strategic Air Command wing and soon to an outlying horseshoe of 18 Titan II missile sites. Ever abreast of the times, Wichita neighborhoods of hale entrepreneurs and factory hands were now home, as well, to clean-cut silo warriors whose understood, if unspoken, round-the-clock business was preparing for the incineration of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Communist China.

In 1960, Wichita was still a small city of 250,000 – a stubby skyline along the silt-heavy Arkansas River. “Small-town atmosphere with modern-city amenities… low crime rate, nationally-recognized school system, low cost of living, ample opportunities for culture and recreation” – paradise according to the Chamber of Commerce. Kansas’ “largest little city” smugly sold itself as the ideal. America agreed. In 1962, for the first of three times, quintessentially Midwestern, quietly metaphorical Wichita was voted the “All-American City.”

Just as typically, the model had dissidents. Behind booster smiles, labor always met the anti-union snarl of the corporations and the city they ruled. For the less than 10% of the community that was African-American or Hispanic, unrelieved racism, face-to-face mockery, went with Brown v. Board, part and parcel of early desegregating Kansas. Not least, the place bred its disillusioned intellectuals, known as the “Magic Locals,” who, in the course of the 1950s, fled for the Beat Scene of San Francisco’s North Beach, where they were celebrated as “the Wichita Group,” in part for the scorn they hurled at their abandoned archetypal town, and thus the nation.

Their bane was the “vortex,” the interlaced cultural-economic tyrannies and personal duplicities of what one of them called the “Suburbia, Materialism and Conformity… ‘Donna Reed/Leave it to Beaver’ identity held dear by a largely white, educated middle class.” So archetypal was the critique that primal-beat poet Allen Ginsberg sought out the place on a Guggenheim-financed road trip in 1966, finding “radio aircraft assembly frame ammunition petroleum nightclub Newspaper streets.” He plunged boldly “On to Wichita to Prophesy! O frightful bard! Into the heart of the Vortex.”

A Man Without Anecdotes

In that same year, as Ginsberg recited, one of the Vortex’s most commendable sons, destined to be perhaps its most influential, was being recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency. Robert Michael Gates was an example the Wichita Group would have found characteristic, if not prophetic – an all-American boy in the all-American town.

He was born in the fall of 1943, during Wichita’s wartime boom which would prove nearly endless. His father sold wholesale auto parts, and the family lived, like much of postwar America, in what he pointedly would call “a middle class section” of town, presumably comfortable, average circumstances (where “average,” after all, was declared a civic virtue). The uniformly generic accounts that have been written about his life portray young Bob growing up with the full local infusion of wholesomeness. “A model child,” he was “bright, well-organized and punctual…. read voraciously and loved to run and hike,” but still found time for church youth groups and “tutoring underprivileged children.”

His early ambition to be a doctor offered a ready excuse for otherwise suspect science projects, experiments on rats he kept in his basement or the boiling of cat carcasses to examine their skeletons. (Alexander Cockburn, one of his least forgiving critics, called him “a cat torturer/drowner in his youth.”) He even attended the same grade school as future Republican Senator Arlen Specter (who, in Gates’ 1991 confirmation hearing for CIA Director, vouched personally for the exceptional quality of their elementary education). Gates went on to excel at Wichita East, education-proud Kansas’ largest high school.

He was also an Eagle Scout. More than just another rite of male passage, it was for him credential, qualification, identity – a talisman of innocence and purity – and he would cling to it. He often listed his Distinguished Eagle Scout Award ahead of his CIA medals and, at 63, earnestly served as president of the National Eagle Scout Association even as he became secretary of defense.

After a quarter-century in government, participating in some of the most crucial episodes of his era, Gates observed it all, yet in a sense owned none of it, preferring to identify himself first and foremost with the rank he won in 1950s Wichita. “That’s how he started,” said a colleague, “and no matter what he’s done or how things turned out, that’s how he wants to be seen.” In the nation’s future spymaster and bureaucrat of the covert as oath-bound Eagle Scout, there was, of course, Hardy Boys irony.

Beyond his merit badges, media profiles over the years offered remarkably little of the flesh-and-blood man who served as a senior official for three presidents. It was as if rigorous CIA checks had already ruled out any of the unwieldy personal details. Gates’ own 600-page memoir typically told almost nothing of his background. “Friends remember him,” Time recounted in 1991, “as a child who demonstrated a need and a knack for pleasing his elders.” His Midwestern provenance left him self-conscious, yet defiant, among the CIA’s vestigial Eastern elite and in a State Department he ridiculed as “guys with last names for first names.” He was, as he proudly pointed out, of “plain tastes and middlebrow origins,” so prairie practical and provincial that whenever he saw someone carrying flowers, he asked in utter seriousness, “Where’s the funeral?”

In Washington as in Wichita, he was a familiar genus, reassuringly, unthreateningly American. An interviewer in 1990 noticed an aphorism on the wall of his White House office: “The easiest way to achieve complete strategic surprise is to commit an act that makes no sense or is even self-destructive.” It was a reminder, Gates explained, of the enemy’s sinister ways. “A useful admonition when trying to understand the Saddam Husseins of the world,” the reporter noted brightly. It was accepted, after all, that the U.S. faced alien forces of evil intent and inherent duplicity in the sometimes menacing, unsavory business of foreign policy. Men of homegrown virtue like Bob Gates had to fathom the challenge and, whatever the transgression of traditional American values, of the code of the Eagle Scout, more than match the methods.

In 1961, he went off to William and Mary, the venerable college in Williamsburg, Virginia, where Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe had been educated two centuries before, but which had since slipped into parochial obscurity. Shuttered for the Civil War when faculty and students left en masse to fight for the Confederacy, state-supported William and Mary admitted its first African-American only in 1963, nearly a decade after the University of Virginia and other regional white redoubts. “Oh my goodness, very traditional, very conservative, and very, very southern,” remembered a woman who studied there in the 1960s and still works at the school. “During Vietnam I think we had some of the only campus demonstrations in the country that were pro-war.”

It was not a usual Wichita college choice, but Dan Landis, an Eagle Scout at Wichita East who had gone there two years earlier, ardently recruited Gates, and he was given a generous scholarship. On arrival, he was ushered into the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, while Landis set him up driving a school bus part-time for pocket money. He also enlisted Gates as an adviser to a local scout troop and got him to join his church. The two Kansans settled into what other students saw as a “straight-arrow, no-nonsense” routine.

Asked recently what the future CIA director and defense secretary did for extracurricular activities in the eventful 1960s, Landis, a retired educator, replied simply, “We did scouts and we went to church.” Actually, Gates was also a dorm advisor and business manager for a campus literary and arts magazine and, while already-discreet Bob never revealed his politics to Landis, he was also active in the Young Republicans.

The “scholar scout,” as a college newspaper called him in 2007, began in pre-med but soon switched to European History. Timothy Sullivan, who sat in courses with him and went on to be president of the college, thought Gates “immensely disciplined, really smart and obviously very ambitious.” Like most witnesses along the way, Sullivan could remember no “sparkling anecdotes” about the famous man, but assumed the qualities behind his later success must have been “in some form or other evident” at the time. They were all, he did remember, “undergraduates who didn’t know much about the world and certainly nothing about the world in which we were going to wind up.”

At commencement in 1965, the service fraternity, scout troop, school bus, church, and campus work all won him the college’s award as the senior making “the greatest contribution to his fellow man” (another accolade faithfully retained in his résumé). He was interested now in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Bloc, perhaps in teaching, though later he would say that the assassination of John F. Kennedy in his junior year moved him to think as well of public service.

He would take a fellowship for a master’s in history at Indiana University, a well-funded Soviet and East European Affairs center known for training future government officials and academics in the Cold War’s most valued specialization. “A real patriot in the very best sense of the word,” was the way Landis summed up his Kansas friend. It was one thing the Vortex and Wichita Group might have agreed on.

The Baltic Syndrome

Our story’s other train was more exotic, a muscular new Red Putilov engine emblazoned with the hammer and sickle and pulling an ornate, plush wagon-lit with scars still raw where the imperial double-headed eagle of the Romanoff czars had been chiseled off. The year was 1933. Rolling eastward across the Russian plain, the swaying car carried the first U.S. diplomats dispatched to Moscow as President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union after some 15 years of severed relations following the Bolshevik Revolution.

Aboard was a 29 year-old foreign service officer, later to become famous as a diplomat and scholar, George Kennan. Though he was already deemed a government expert on Russia, the train provided Kennan’s first actual exposure to the Soviet Union. As he listened to their escort, Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, reminisce in London-fluent English about growing up in a village by the rail line, about books he read as a boy and his dreams of becoming a librarian, the Princeton-educated diplomat from Milwaukee was astonished. “We suddenly realized, or at least I did, that these people we were dealing with were human beings like ourselves.” Kennan noted, as if making a scientific discovery, “that they had been born somewhere, that they had their childhood ambitions as we had.” It would prove but a fleeting moment of respite in an endless ordeal of mutual ignorance, dogmatism, and dread.

In his surprise, Kennan symbolized generations of U.S. officials who would continue to see the Soviet Union through the prism not only of native provincialism and ideological hostility, but also the pervasive bias of their training. Pre-world-power America, in its isolation, knew little of the old Russia and even less of the tumultuous, often savage new politics of class and revolutionary party power that followed the Bolsheviks’ coup of November 1917. “A fearsome set of internationalists and logicians,” Winston Churchill had called the new Soviet leaders with Tory wrath, “a subhuman structure upon the ruins of Christian civilization.” While a million Americans now voted socialist and there was some early sympathy for the “Reds,” most of the U.S. from Wall Street to Main Street shared Churchill’s reflexive fear and loathing, if not his florid elocution.

Anti-capitalist Soviet Russia was not merely a disagreeable state on some far horizon, but an immediate threat to domestic tranquility. Alarm gripped even the most respectable of newspapers, in which the Bolsheviks, like early Christians in Rome or Jews in Medieval Europe, were reliably reported to be eating babies and committing other unspeakable outrages. “BRUTALITIES OF THE BOLSHEVIKI,” announced a typical 1919 headline in the usually sedate New York Times, “STRIP WOMEN IN STREETS – PEOPLE OF EVERY CLASS EXCEPT THE SCUM SUBJECTED TO VIOLENCE BY MOBS.”

In the late summer of 1918, U.S. troops landed in north Russia and in Siberia, part of a joint military intervention with the French, British, and Japanese to aid the monarchists and turn the tide against the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war; meanwhile, across America, an accompanying Great Red Scare loosed mass arrests, persecutions, and deportations of foreign radicals of every stripe. It was “a moment of political repression,” wrote noted historian Howard Zinn, “unparalleled in United States history.” In a sweeping onslaught of reaction, all-American Wichita would, by 1919, imprison and try hundreds of its citizens, assumed seditious, if not terrorist, simply for having joined, or worked for, a union.

Over the next two decades of mortgaged peace, Washington and other Western powers would abide tyrannies around the world – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Fascist Spain, as well as despots from China to Argentina. Yet the Soviet Union was in another category, “untenable, unacceptable, unimaginable,” as one writer put it. In geopolitics and language, the new revolutionary state was to be treated as an infected patient, held in isolation behind a cordon sanitaire (as Kennan would himself so famously urge after World War II in his celebrated, if unoriginal, policy of “containment”).

With Washington refusing even to recognize the Soviet regime throughout the 1920s, no posting or direct exposure to Russia was possible for the officials charged with keeping watch on the scourge. The fallback position was academic training in the nature of the new regime; and, since expertise was lacking in American colleges, Washington sent its Kennans to study Soviet affairs at European universities. The “experts” they found there, however, were almost exclusively exiles from czarist Russia, expatriates by class, outlook, and personal history, loathing – but also largely ignorant of – Soviet rule, and often financially as well as sentimentally nostalgic for the fallen autocracy.

Few of history’s losers owed defeat more to political blindness or were more blinded by defeat; and no victims remained more staunchly oblivious to what had befallen them than the Russian émigré exodus. Knowing Russia so little to begin with, Washington’s representatives proved incapable of seeing just how distorted were the perspectives of their mentors, whose reflexive animus, after all, America’s top officials shared without the encumbrance of knowledge. Lost from the start were intellectual integrity and independent judgment, those most basic necessities for any diplomatic or intelligence service and, of course, for formulating national policy.

From that corrupted tutelage, freshly minted U.S. specialists were commonly assigned to Latvia or Estonia, small Baltic states conquered by Russia in the eighteenth century but now (briefly) independent. These became Meccas for the anti-Soviet Diaspora, in many respects small replicas of the caste system and reactionary politics of Imperial Russia itself. So it was that America’s diplomats, expected to understand and interpret the Soviet Union for vast stakes, were shaped not only by an insular and fearful American culture, but also by the pervasive lost-world bias of their trainers. Not surprisingly, a Baltic Syndrome ripened and settled into career orthodoxy. Without having set foot there, America’s early “experts” on the USSR, men who would shape policy in the Cold War, formed indelible attitudes “while studying Russia from afar.”

Kennan’s epiphany on the train proved short-lived. The Soviets soon plunged into the nightmare world of dictator Joseph Stalin’s Great Purges. Facing the accompanying craze of xenophobia and suspicion, U.S. diplomats reacted predictably. The outwardly charming, patrician ambassador from Philadelphia, William Bullitt, Jr., regretted in dispatches the influence in the Kremlin of a “wretched little kike” – whom he discreetly did not identify by name – as opposed to what he called “straight” Russians (whom he tolerated only slightly more). Fluent in Russian, but in the disappeared Russia of their émigré tutors, Kennan and his colleagues understood little of the rulers and ruled in a society so separated from them by class and perspective. “Weird developments” was the way one of them characterized the murderous midnight arrests and show trials that ravaged the USSR in the 1930s, seemingly inscrutable events rooted in defining struggles between crushing backwardness and revolutionary fervor, democracy and dictatorship, confident openness and fearful isolation.

The embassy found even more baffling an undeniable popular support for the tyranny that had so savagely extinguished the great Enlightenment and Western social democratic ideals of the Revolution. Behind the Communist Party despotism lay a chilling authenticity in the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which had carried upward a new stratum of privilege and power. Kennan would not bother with the “hackneyed question of how far Bolshevism has changed Russia” – so he began a 1938 State Department lecture. Missing much of the point of the past 20 years and the 50 to come, he stressed what he considered the historical essence of a people: Russia’s congenital “Asiatic” aggressiveness and penchant for “Byzantine” intrigue. “After all,” he explained with no audible irony or hint of self-awareness, “nations, like individuals, are largely the products of their environment…”

For its part, Washington had no official doubts about the evil paradox of the Soviets, a system seen as mad and inept, yet diabolical and relentless, its policies cruelly capricious yet cunningly planned. “We were all agreed,” as one of Kennan’s superiors put it archly, “what was the situation in the USSR.”

Cartoon Worlds, Russian and American

Through the inter-war years, and especially after World War II, the specialists, invariably in agreement, advised a coterie of senior officials whose own consensus was historic. Their names made up a roll call of men who shaped postwar U.S. policy and much of the world in the second, American half of the twentieth century – Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense and Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett, Ambassador Averell Harriman, Assistant Secretary of Defense and World Bank President John McCloy, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, State Department aide Paul Nitze, and a handful of others. With much inbreeding of schools, firms, and society, theirs was a universe of Groton, polo, and tennis, of Wall Street combines, rich wives, shaded estates, “wealth, cleverness, and social grace,” as Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson described it – and of congenial precepts about world affairs, including ready agreement about Russia. It was, above all, a circle of fateful insularity.

Assumed to be of broad experience, they were men who had never experienced the Depression torment of their era, as so many of their countrymen had, to say nothing of the upheavals of war and revolution that convulsed so much of the early twentieth-century world. Apparently cultured, they had cultivated no sensibility for societies beyond those of Western Europe. Typically, the lean, magnetic young financier Bob Lovett played the mimic for his Long Island weekend circle, with rubber-faced, reportedly hilariously accented parodies of the world’s laughable people – Russians, Arabs, and Chinese among others.

In its lurid propaganda of the period, the Soviet tyranny barraged its own predominantly peasant, still largely pre-modern populace with cartoons of vulture-like figures labeled Wall Street bankers and corporate lawyers, all visibly anti-Slavic bigots of reactionary venom. Like the matching portraits of bomb-throwing Bolsheviks in American cartoons, the images exploited the primal. Yet, in ways long unrecognized in the U.S., the men who governed Washington’s relations with the world lent much flesh-and-blood credence to the crude caricatures on the walls of Soviet factories and collective farms.

What America’s analysts and policy-makers lost in their stunted worldview was the sheer complexity, contradiction, and paradox of the Soviet Union, all relevant to informed policy. Missing between myopia and phobia was the authentic alternative to the Baltic Syndrome’s policy by caricature: an intellectual openness and seriousness, honesty and sensibility, that might have led to genuine insight, to actual “intelligence” that could have saved lives and fortunes, even moderated the Kremlin tyranny and hastened its end.

As a post-Soviet flood of archives has revealed (though it was no secret even during the years of Soviet rule), Moscow’s foreign policy was waged more often in caution than aggressiveness, more out of weakness than strength, and with an abiding parochial fear and ignorance of the U.S., a hostility that Washington’s acts in kind only reinforced, justified, and prolonged. So much of the great “superpower” rivalry was what John Le Carré would aptly call a grotesque “looking-glass war.”

The Soviet leaders had been seared by revolution, intervention, purges, the West’s cynical efforts to push Hitler east in the 1930s, and the near-defeat and utter destruction of World War II, followed by U.S. postwar dominance and encirclement in which they found themselves an eternal half-hour from nuclear annihilation (“I’ll climb the Eiffel Tower and spit on all of Europe,” the provincial Leonid Brezhnev, a future Kremlin leader, had said defiantly but pitifully in 1945.) The postwar Soviet leadership were creatures of their preconceptions and preoccupations, and of their odious politics, as much as any ruling class in history. Yet to relegate them to caricature, to ignore the touchstones of their lives, was ultimate folly. What American specialists saw were not fearful, compromised “human beings like ourselves,” but monstrous, implacable, mythically evil enemies in ill-fitting suits, to be opposed at all costs, with the end – the “defeat” of Russia one way or another – justifying the means.

The stakes were incalculable. The Cold War would fatally mortgage domestic and foreign affairs in the world’s two most powerful countries, enthroning corrupt oligarchs in each who mocked the ideals – political democracy in the case of the U.S., economic in the case of Russia – for which so many had died. Their “superpower” clash would dominate world politics for more than four decades. It would draft tens of millions, devour fortunes, cordon Europe and Asia off into armed camps, entangle neutrals, wantonly destroy any potential political-economic alternatives to either corrupt system, rouse bitter political struggles on every continent, unleash proxy wars with untold millions of casualties, periodically threaten nuclear holocaust, and fix the fate of nations from Chile to Cambodia, the Congo to Afghanistan. When it ended in 1991 with the seeming victory of the United States, the outcome recast the planet. It had been the rivalry of the century, and it threw a still unrecognized curse over the next. No wonder that new period, rather than being given a name of its own, would be known, like some sad afterword, as “the post-Cold War era.”

From 1933 to 1945, there was one notable exception to the astigmatism of the specialists and their superiors – the President of the United States. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that Hudson River squire, harbored no illusions about the Bolsheviks. At the outset of his presidency, he made clear his disgust with what he called “the hunger, death, and bitterness” of Soviet rule. Yet he believed that the Kremlin’s foreign policy would be shaped by the acts of other powers and he took a broader view of Russia’s painful experiment as well as its profound weakness. “He had some curiosity about the Soviet Union, a measured respect for its accomplishments,” judged his biographer James MacGregor Burns, “and a certain sympathy for its goals of social justice, although he doubted that one could obtain ‘Utopia in a day.'”

For a dozen years, FDR held at bay the cultivated repugnance of his diplomats and the incestuous bigotry of his plutocratic senior officials. “Frankly, if I were a Russian, I would feel that I had been given the run-around in the United States,” he said of a bottleneck in World War II aid to Russia. “If I were a Russian…” – it was not a premise common in government cables, intelligence briefings, or policy papers, then or later; nor did such essential human empathy necessarily mean some policy simplistically favorable to the Soviets.

In 1944, for instance, Roosevelt was seized with a typical enthusiasm for a postwar plan to reform the ancient feudal land of Iran, to free the country and the Persian Gulf of its historic predators, Russia as well as Britain. The policy would enrage London and Moscow, FDR was told; he nonetheless pressed on. Defying the old empires, communist or capitalist – that was to be “an example of what we could do,” he told an aide, “by an unselfish American policy.”

It was all over in April 1945 with his death. Into the Oval Office moved the more typical American certainty of Harry Truman, a feisty, remorselessly compromised machine politician who would be led in the White House by bellicose, half-informed aides and who gleaned what little he knew of the outside world from a “story book view of history,” as his biographer Richard Miller once put it, read with “a rousing Fourth of July patriotism” in rural western Missouri – not so far up the tracks from the Vortex.

Targeting Russia

Like Wichita’s B-52s and Titan missiles, the CIA was targeted on Russia. As World War II had been for its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Cold War was for the CIA. It defined every purpose, and all else incidental. More than 80% of the Agency’s ever fattening budget in its early years was locked in the ice floe of the Baltic Syndrome. The CIA was not to be confused with – or disposed to confuse the President and his top officials with – genuine intelligence about countries of the world in and for themselves. The Middle East, Asia, Latin America, Africa – a region mattered, for the most part, only as it related to the struggle with the Soviet Union. From the Vietnam War to Afghanistan and Iraq – with scores of lesser-known disasters in between – that willful negligence was, and remains, immensely damaging.

As it happened, though few American experts seemed to realize it, the target had already been demolished as the Cold War began, a condition from which it never really recovered. If blinkered U.S. specialists missed much of Soviet political or social reality, they could not help seeing the country’s sheer physical ruin. Revolution, terror, civil war, purges, collectivization, famine, the horrors of the Gulag, World War II’s carnage, still more postwar starvation – the three-decade toll by various reckonings was in the range of 30-50 million dead and countless maimed, an inconceivable demography of national desolation.

Whatever the number, the visible result was a USSR in what one of its historians called, with rare candor, “a state of abject poverty.” The 1946-47 Ukrainian famine, like the Nazi siege of Leningrad, made gruesome reality of old American news claims of cannibalism. Nikita Khrushchev, the former shepherd and miner, who rose to lead (and reform) the post-Stalin USSR, recounted in horror and shame a scene he had seen himself in postwar Odessa: “The woman had the corpse of her own child on the table, and was cutting it up.”

In 1945, welcoming General Dwight Eisenhower to Moscow after their joint victory over the Nazis, Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov told his fellow commander that the Soviet plight was even worse than that of the defeated, destroyed Axis powers. “Russia would never place itself in the position of begging,” Eisenhower recorded, noting the plea embedded in Zhukov’s description, “but…. he could tell me with the utmost frankness that the standard of living in Russia today was deplorably low, and that it was his conviction that even the present standard in Germany was at least as high as it is in Russia…”

Touring the USSR two years later, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery saw the same far-reaching ruin. “The Soviet Union is very, very tired,” he wrote Eisenhower. “Devastation in Russia is appalling and the country is in no fit state to go to war…. It will be 15 to 20 years before Russia will be able to remedy her various defects and be in a position to fight a major world war with a good chance of success.”

Nowhere was evidence plainer than in the creaking Soviet military. By 1948, demobilization had reduced the Red Army in Europe from more than eleven million to less than three million. Combat-ready troops matched Western armies numerically, but lacked the equivalent nuclear weapons or strategic air power – and those were just the most obvious deficits. The Red Army remained shoddily equipped, subject to high rates of desertion and deplorable morale. As late as 1950, half its transport was unmechanized, moving on still badly war-torn roads, with 80% of railway bridges still seriously damaged. Troops were consumed with the occupation of vast new Soviet-controlled territories in Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Balkans, with quelling resistance and supporting the rule of local communists, and, above all, with extracting reparations and rebuilding the demolished USSR. “In the late 1940s, the Red Juggernaut,” concluded a post-mortem by a team of scholars years later, “was anything but.”

Of Condoms and “Endings in Silence”

Formed in 1947, the CIA proved up to the task of justifying its mission – despite the enemy’s utter exhaustion and preoccupation. By what historian Franklyn Holzman called “politics and guesswork” (what our own era termed “fixing intelligence around the policy”), the Agency launched a long tradition, which Robert Gates would inherit and carry forward two decades later, of the systematic exaggeration of Russian power. To the horse-drawn Soviet occupation army in Eastern Europe, analysts added phantom divisions, magically restored demobilized troops, and then topped the fictional mix with hair-raising scenarios of a possible invasion of Western Europe. They “exaggerated Soviet capabilities and intentions to such a great extent,” as Holzman’s study documented 20 later, “that it is surprising anyone took them seriously.”

As would be true over the next four decades, the media turned out to have not the slightest difficulty parroting the fabrication. Typically, under the headline, “Russia’s Edge in Men and Arms” – and this was just as the Red Army reached its nadir – an April 1948 US News announced: “Russia, at this stage, is the world’s no. 1 military power [whose] armies and air forces are in a position to pour across Europe and into Asia almost at will.”

By now a senior official awash in contrived, ever more ominous intelligence, it was Kennan who completed the CIA’s initial portfolio with a 1948 proposal to conduct covert subversion, sabotage, and – in a term of suitable ambiguity – “political action” inside Russia, the Soviet Bloc as a whole, or any other country where the rivals might compete. For the old threat that knew no bounds, foreign or domestic, it was to be containment uncontained. The task was not exactly new for American governments long engaged in freebooting regime-change in Latin America. But the writ for intervention now spread into what, for ever-provincial Washington, were essentially uncharted regions of the world.

Begun under the control of the State Department, covert action was swiftly taken over by an increasingly bureaucratically adept, politically potent CIA. Kennan himself soon had qualms. “I would be extremely careful of doing anything at the governmental end that purports to affect directly the governmental system of another country, no matter what the provocation may seem,” he said in a speech as he left government in 1953. “It is replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness. To the extent it might be successful it would involve the U.S. in heavy responsibilities.” The warning would echo down half-a-century of grim history to Kabul 2001 and Baghdad 2003. But Kennan (whose view policy-makers were glad to accept so long as it agreed with their own) was by then an outsider, like many ex-officials he had already become a prophet without honor in the increasingly close-minded councils of Washington policy-making.

The new mandate for intervention would lie with the innocuously titled “Office of Policy Coordination.” After initial fumbling by men far too hesitant, it was handed over to Frank Wisner, a well-to-do southerner and fey Russophobe in the Lovett mold. He came to Washington in his bald, jowly forties by way of a Wall Street law firm, a wartime OSS liaison with Romanian royalty, and the requisite Manhattan and Georgetown society friends from whom he recruited the “old boys” who would give the early CIA much of its outer gloss and inner fatuousness. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, later Le Carré and others – a teeming genre – would portray the smug ignorance, incompetence, sleaze and self-ruin of spies’ machinations. But the Wisner club’s all-too-real version of life imitated, and improved on, art.

Funded by money skimmed from the Marshall Plan, their “operations” were grim previews – and parodies – of things to come, of a world that less than two decades later would be second nature to Robert Gates. The code names were colorful; the realities dark. BLOODSTONE enlisted Nazi SS veterans, most of them war criminals, and placed them in key positions – from the founders of West German intelligence to CIA-paid advisers to tyrannical client regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, where they proved adept at organizing secret police and using Gestapo torture methods to deal with domestic democrats and Islamic devouts (wiping out the former while scarring and steeling the latter for a fierce evolution to our jihadist world). MOCKINGBIRD employed Washington Post editor Phil Graham and other ready establishment collaborators to suborn the foreign press and American media. “By the early 1950s,” wrote biographer Deborah Davis, “Wisner ‘owned’ respected members of the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS and other communications vehicles.”

Meanwhile, the denizens of “Policy Coordination” set off stink bombs at suspect youth rallies around the world, launched balloons with millions of propaganda leaflets over Soviet satellites as well as the USSR, and sent flocks of agents into Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia to sabotage and foment uprisings, which were confidently expected momentarily. To attack enemy morale, always presumed to be frail, they schemed to parachute in as well hugely outsized condoms labeled “American medium.” Whatever the condom effect, the fate of most agents was clear. Betrayed by sheer ineptitude, Soviet moles, or both – Wisner was a convivial friend of the legendary Soviet agent Kim Philby and other Kremlin spies high in Western intelligence – operatives plunged into the Iron Curtain night somewhere south of Rostock or across the Amu Darya at new moon only to appear later as tortured wraiths in some show trial dock or simply to vanish without trace. “Endings in silence,” a former control officer called it.

Pyrrhic Victory

The results of CIA covert actions were far more bracing in non-European societies not controlled by the Soviets, where black bags of cash or small mercenary military forces sufficed to seize power. Hence, the ten months from August 1953 to June 1954 that shook Wisner’s world with self-congratulation – and American foreign policy with fateful precedents.

In August 1953, in an Iran in which FDR had hoped to apply “an unselfish American policy,” the CIA’s TP-AJAX (Operation Ajax) bought South Tehran street toughs and assorted notables in order to overthrow the popular, elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh, staving off oil nationalization, securing Persia’s petroleum for the five U.S. major oil companies as well as the old British oil overlords, and returning to the throne as Shah of Shahs (after an ignominious flight from Tehran) the dim, grandiose, but obligingly despotic Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

The next June, in Guatemala, the CIA launched PB-SUCCESS, dragging a drunken right-wing colonel through a cold shower before installing him, temporarily sober, as caudillo to replace another popular, potentially populist regime worrying to U.S. business interests. Each of these operations was based on the flimsy, thoroughly unexamined pretext that the country was in imminent danger of a left-wing – ipso facto Russian – takeover; both would be followed by medals proudly pinned on in private White House ceremonies; both would involve fraud and folly not exposed for decades; and both would have mortal consequences in the affected countries and, in the case of Iran, for twenty-first-century America and much of the Middle East as well.

The Tehran bagman for the CIA was Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., Theodore’s grandson. The Agency’s other men for the Middle East were less patrician but similarly unqualified: Miles Copeland, Jr., a jazz trumpeter from Alabama with a few college hours in music at Tuscaloosa and no substantive knowledge of the Arab world; James Critchfield, educated at North Dakota Agricultural College in the late 1930s, then a military prison commandant in occupied Germany who befriended one of those useful Nazis; and James Jesus Angleton of Boise, who had followed a mediocre (if racy) career at Yale with OSS intrigues in Italy (in which he made good use of prewar family ties to the Mafia). The later-notorious Angleton was an extreme case, but not an atypical one. He combined a whiskey-drenched anti-Soviet mania (which would, in the 1970s and 80s, develop into genuine paranoia) with some bureaucratic agility, but no palpable expertise in Middle Eastern affairs – all of which, of course, fitted him perfectly to direct the CIA’s intimate ties with the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad.

“They somehow inherited British attitudes towards the colored races of the world,” reporter Thomas Powers, a chronicler of the CIA, wrote gingerly. Somehow. The trumpeter, ag school graduate, manic drunk, and the oblivious, expedient men above and below them simply knew no better.

The legacies of all this would be epic. The brutal military and corporate-mafia repression installed in Guatemala foreshadowed Chile after the 1973 U.S.-backed coup and murder of socialist president Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet, as it would Central America’s death-squad agonies in the Reagan 1980s. Even quieter victories by CIA-cosseted regimes in the Philippines and the Congo would soon lead to plundering, bloody dictatorships.

Nowhere, however, was the toll of covert intervention higher than in the Middle East and South Asia:

In Iraq, a CIA-supported corrupt monarchy, inherited from the British, stifled democratic stirrings in the 1950s; then, CIA-instigated Ba’ath Party coups in 1963, and again in 1968, killed reformers and reforms (along with any hopes of sectarian equity), and led to Saddam Hussein’s tribal-clan despotism.

In Iran, the Shah’s CIA-allied and -tutored torture regime centering on his SAVAK secret police destroyed any real possibility of a democratic counterforce to the Ayatollah’s ensuing clerical tyranny bred by the Shah’s blundering, martyring repression.

In Syria, CIA-bankrolled, opéra bouffe juntas dating to the 1950s begat the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad.

In Lebanon, CIA collusion with Israel helped prop up the privileged rule of the Maronite Christian minority from the late 1940s through the civil-war torn 1970s and 80s, while the hostility of the long-oppressed Shia majority eventually led to Hezbollah.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, from the 1950s on, incessant CIA Cold War machinations in the Hindu Kush, and patronage of Pakistani military dictatorships, would set the stage for the calamities of the Afghan anti-Soviet War, the civil war that followed, the rise of the Taliban with its safe haven for al-Qaeda, and so of our post-9/11 world of terror and war.

Even in the obscure Horn of Africa, there were CIA payoffs to Somali politicians and warlords in the 1960s – $20,000-a-year was the going rate for prime ministers. The bribes went alongside generous backing for the venal, autocratic regime of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie across the border. (This was ransom for a U.S. electronic spy station in Ethiopian-occupied Eritrea.) CIA-chauffeured Suburbans whisked His Imperial Majesty to and from the recreational hangings of democracy or ethnic-rights dissidents in the expansive central square of his capital, Addis Ababa – all of which only sped the region’s long descent into apocalyptic famine and war.

No flashpoint of the early twenty-first-century from the Mediterranean to the Java Sea would be without a half-century-plus legacy of covert Washington interventions. These were instrumental in birthing, or maintaining, tyrannical regimes that almost invariably bred, in opposition, an anti-U.S. atavism, while ruthlessly extinguishing democratic alternatives. The United States and its prime intelligence agency did not, of course, single-handedly create the incendiary world of 9/11. But Washington wantonly fostered so much that was contrary even to the most cold-eyed version of its own self-interest that what Robert Gates termed the “splendid” American triumph over the USSR in the Cold War would also prove one of the great Pyrrhic victories in the annals of world politics.

Historians arguing over that half-century of covert actions tended to discover a “rogue” CIA trampling American ideals or else a much-maligned agency only “following orders.” In the twisting internal politics of Washington, it was largely a distinction without meaning.

Deniability-minded postwar presidents were surely prone to Henry II’s demure order – “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” – to his zealous knights to hack to death Archbishop Thomas Becket in the sanctity of the cathedral. But to the Oval Office, as Henry’s court, evidence of meddling came up the chain of command, with willing knights always in waiting. No regime or ruler “changed” by Washington since 1947 fell solely because of presidential animus.

Death sentences on men and regimes – with multitudes regularly destroyed in the ensuing maelstroms – were pronounced by key presidential advisors or came in the form of institutional verdicts from the collective wisdom of the CIA, National Security Council, Pentagon, State Department, or some combination of all four. Presidential orders were usually prompted, or recommended, by successive small inter-agency groups made up of senior men and discreetly labeled with the number of a birthing presidential directive or some other suitably bloodless bureaucratic designation – 303, Forty, the Special Coordination Committee.

Not that the CIA was not manipulative, did not harbor an occupational contempt for the awkward hindrance of democratic politics at home (or abroad), was not driven by organizational as well as personal demons, or played by virtuoso exiles or alien spy agencies pursuing their own ends. America’s orgy of intervention traced to all those influences, as well as to the National Security Advisor, that assassination- and coup-whisperer to amenable bosses and bureaucracies. From Kennedy’s McGeorge Bundy to Lyndon Johnson’s Walt Rostow, Richard Nixon’s Henry Kissinger, and Jimmy Carter’s Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as lesser figures under Ronald Reagan and his successors, some of the most ardent initiators of covert murder and mayhem were those NSC gatekeepers and counselors supposedly there to restrain presidents and regimes from such primitive and ultimately counterproductive impulses.

For Frank Wisner, all the covert glory began to fade in the historic fall of 1956. Flouting a more cautious, but typically unenforced Eisenhower policy of restraint toward Eastern Europe, his Operation RED SOX/RED CAP during the Hungarian revolt against Soviet puppet rule (and the coincidental Suez crisis in which Britain, France and Israel invaded Abdel Nasser’s Egypt after he nationalized the Suez Canal, all to the CIA’s surprise) was a classic of its kind. Broadcasts inciting the Hungarians to rise up, an émigré army manqué, and the usual balloons fatally linked the rebels to the U.S., hardening Moscow all the more in its decision to crush the uprising as a “counter-revolution” and an act of Cold War rollback – both of which Wisner, if not Washington, fully intended.

Watching from his mission on the Danube was a 42-year-old Russian ambassador, future KGB chief, and eventual Kremlin leader, Yuri Andropov, who would take it all in – and eventually into the Politburo, where, 23 years later, his too-often-borne-out fear of American machinations would trigger Russia’s catastrophic invasion of Afghanistan, the seminal event of our post-9/11 nightmare.

Wisner soon sank into dementia, a condition he shared with a telling number of others in early Cold War high-society, including the Washington Post’s Graham, Secretary of Defense Forrestal (who threw himself out of the window of the hospital where he was committed), and, not least, Angleton, who turned his madness in a burst of rampant destruction on his own agency as well as the rest of the government in a crazed search for a Soviet “super mole.” Wisner was eased from the CIA in 1958, his files reviewed and promptly burned as the “ramblings of a madman.” There would be discreet clinics and quiet treatment for mania, if little care for the larger pathology he and his fellow psychotics embodied.

Late in October 1965, as Bob Gates began graduate school at Indiana, Wisner drove to his Maryland Eastern Shore retreat, and blew off his head with a shotgun. Crowding the National Cathedral, Washington’s elite and CIA colleagues – special Agency guards kept the KGB from a close look – sang the hymn of Christian martyrdom “Fling Out the Banner” before a hero’s burial at Arlington. “Instead of a dirge,” one of the old boys remembered, “it was exuberant, powerful, exultant.” Conscious mourning, as conscious foreign policy, was still far away.

Students like Bob Gates were to be something of a remedy for the CIA’s first generation of men, so uneducated about a world they manipulated with such careless and brutal abandon. In widening recruitment efforts, and requiring a gamut of substantive and psychological tests (even a psychiatric interview for its new officers), the CIA seemed to acknowledge that its ranks lacked a certain professionalism – in terms of diploma knowledge of the world as well as certifiable sanity.

By 1965, the Agency was also responding to a national mobilization of education as a Cold War weapon. This had been underway for years in the aftershock of the spectacular 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik, the orbiting little satellite neither the CIA, nor the American public had expected from their caricature Russians. Worse yet, it sat atop a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile. Much of Gates’ career would be shaped by that sobering event – a Commie rocket that could reach Wichita – when he was only 14, still parboiling cats and ardently rising in the Boy Scouts.

Sputnik’s launch began a craze in the U.S. to spur military-related science and technology from grade school to graduate school. The 1958 National Defense Education Act also allotted unprecedented millions for “foreign area training,” part of a vast effort to create well-informed specialists on the Soviet Bloc and the Third World, a know-thine-enemy vogue shared by foundations as well as Congress. Thus, the irony of government-financed graduate study to ward off the socialist menace, and Carnegie and Ford Foundation philanthropy to save capitalism by paying serious young Americans to read Marx and Lenin.

Universities like Indiana with more than the usual offerings in Russian history and Slavic languages were ready reservoirs for CIA recruiters and Bob Gates was their ideal target. It all seemed to promise a new worldliness – for Wichita as well as Washington. But lurking like a lethal gene was that old Baltic Syndrome, with its reactionary animus and blindfolds, in which America’s would-be specialists in the Soviet regime had always been schooled.

No independent American expertise on the Soviets would magically appear, despite the post-Sputnik infusions of money. In the 1960s, knowing students mordantly called bucolic little Bloomington, Indiana, “Novocherkassk” – after the Cossack town that had been the capital of the monarchist “Whites” in Russia’s Civil War. The name was sadly fitting. In 1965, Indiana’s Soviet Affairs faculty was still so dominated by émigrés, or the émigré-indoctrinated, that courses given when Gates arrived amounted to little more than the usual worn tour of Kremlin horrors.

Indiana was hardly alone. Harvard was much the same – its own prestigious and lavishly supported Russian studies program dominated by figures like historian Richard Pipes, a reactionary of East European descent whose lectures riveted undergraduates with an unrelieved demonology of the Bolshevik Revolution. “We’ll be reading Karl Marx who is not now and never has been a member of the Communist Party,” celebrated Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith would dryly announce in his course on economic development. But such irreverence was rare, and his course was not often required for “specialists.”

Other reputed centers of area studies – most prominently Columbia with young ex-Harvard Russophobe Zbigniew Brzezinski, a star lecturer in Soviet affairs – were similar bastions of Baltic Syndrome orthodoxy. The narrowness of most curricula in the 1960s moved even a timorous, still McCarthy-era-cowed State Department to react. Its cultural affairs officers recommended, albeit quietly, that U.S. graduate students heading for Moscow or Leningrad on a new exchange program with the USSR (with language prepping beforehand at Indiana) read Wright Miller’s otherwise ignored little classic Russians As People. (“What,” asked a puzzled Russian student at Moscow State University on seeing the book in 1964, “did you think we were?”)

Money now gushed into “area specialization,” not just in Soviet affairs, but in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – all those contested areas of a contested planet where the loyalties of restless natives now seemed to be of some practical importance. Like learning math to catch the Russians in space, the logic seemed unexceptionable. To save the world from communist clutches, some knowledge of that world would obviously be helpful.

A World of “Slopes” and “Towel Heads”

In practice, none of this had much effect on root prejudice. An American Army in Vietnam lost to a foe (and defended an ally) its commanders as well as the ranks generally referred to as “gooks,” “dinks,” and “slopes,” and whose politics it never grasped. It would be much the same three decades later, when U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanded in part by erstwhile junior officers from the Vietnam War, were effectively defeated by two of history’s most momentous, if seemingly ragtag, insurgencies made up of “hajis,” “sand niggers,” and “towel heads” of similarly baffling mind and motivation.

As usual, bigotry ran bottom to top, civilian no less than military. In the Vietnam-era White House, President Nixon commonly deplored “jigs” and “Jew boys,” while Harvard’s Kissinger (with a young aide of like mentality named John Negroponte) planned savage carpet bombings of North Vietnam on the premise, as Kissinger put it, that “I can’t believe a fourth-rate power doesn’t have a breaking point.” It was typical of the quaint anthropology of the famous diplomat and many of his staff, including future secretaries of state Alexander Haig and Larry Eagleburger. (Told during the Nigerian Civil War that Biafra’s Ibos tended to appear more Negroid than northern Nigerians, Kissinger blurted out in unguarded surprise, “You always said Ibos were so gifted and accomplished. How could they be more Negroid?”)

Yet there was something more insidious than crude Eurocentric racism at work. Imbibed by a new generation of bureaucrats and analysts with winning-hearts-and-minds, career-making fervor was another kind of bigotry dressed in the clothes of scholarly authority and of knowledge in service to power. It took an eminent literary critic and expatriate from one of the most abused “areas” of the world to expose it.

A revolutionary book when it appeared in the late 1970s, Orientalism by Palestinian Edward Said revealed the intellectual hollowness of the predominant Western view of the Arab world (and, by implication, of much of the rest of the globe as well). Professor Said’s naked emperor proved to be the views of two centuries of Western academics and novelists, clerks and clerics, soldiers and tourists, diplomats and dilettantes that created a collective, stereotypical, paradoxical Muslim Orient – stagnant yet ever-roiling; childlike yet cunning; femininely weak yet no less macho-menacing for that; indolent but agitated; always prone to feudal despotism, though available for capitalist liberation; congenitally terrorist and genocidal by nature; presumptively inferior; endlessly devious; and, above all, relentlessly alien. Said’s Orient of Western mythology was what one author aptly called “the quintessential ‘Other.'”

“They’re our boys bought and paid for, but you always gotta remember that these people can’t be trusted,” said Archie Roosevelt, Kermit’s cousin and a CIA deputy for the Middle East in the later 1960s. His weary exasperation with the supposedly innate Arab traits of treachery and corruptibility – he was speaking of Iraqi Ba’ath Party officers on his payroll in the 1963 and 1968 Baghdad coups – caught an American official mood extending from the 1940s to 2007, from Iraq to Vietnam to Afghanistan and back to Iraq again. It was part of the territory, diplomats and spies understood, a cost of doing business beyond the English Channel with what many called, in the privacy of inter-agency meetings, the “rug merchants.”

Long embedded in American prejudice – from Holy Land travelogues to pulp novels and action movies, coin of the realm from foreign affairs professionals to Capitol Hill plebeians – no preconception, not even the anti-Soviet mania, shaped U.S. policy more than the now-subtle, now-brazen stereotypes of the Arab world. (This was, of course, intimately related to an unquestioning affinity for Israel, though even as that costly penchant frays, the Orientalism Express barrels on.)

As in academia or the media, government had its exceptions to Orientalism’s sway – analysts, spies, or diplomats of wider perception. There is, however, no evidence that they carried a single significant day in the last 60 years in a Washington gripped by Orientalist fervor.

Authentic intelligence was absent when needed most, which was most of the time, and knowledge scant in any guise. CIA veterans recall that there were rarely more than three to five officers ranked as Arabic-fluent “Arabists” on Agency desks at any time prior to 1991. Though there might have been more Arabists in the field, even fewer there focused on Arab politics as distinct from the CIA’s primary target worldwide: Soviet missions and their relations with host regimes. In the Islamic world as elsewhere, unrest was seen far less as legitimate grievance emerging from local or regional situations than yet more evidence of Kremlin machinations. Politics in the Arab world, as in the Third World generally, was not so much a matter of history-in-the-making as of dreary pawns being manipulated by great powers.

The colonial sociology of knowledge of the specialists, when placed alongside the cultural illiteracy of senior bureaucrats, policy-makers, and politicians – to say nothing of a blanketing pro-Israeli bias – produced a half-century of American patronage of repressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. There would be year after year of watery smiles as dickering over ephemera went on with ruling strata, while American officials remained oblivious to what later came to be called “the Arab Street.” Diplomatic and intelligence dispatches of the era would breathe a monotonous triviality, a climate without weather as storms billowed.

As 9/11 and the years to follow made plain, what was missed was momentous. Gathering largely beyond Washington’s ken were tides sweeping the Arab world in the latter twentieth century – a slow, sure popular mobilization, not to speak of a fundamentalist reaction to inequitable modernization by U.S.-purchased oligarchies. That mobilization was at once populist, authoritarian, and divisively sectarian.

From the 1950s on, in a fetish of “progress” and as a Cold War counter to the Russians, U.S. officials exhorted Arab regimes to headlong “development,” buttressing some, but pushing most beyond their means. With oil prices sagging in the late 1970s and the right-wing version of “free enterprise” and “supply-side economics” seizing the

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from