How did you become involved in the Middle East?
is former CIA Near East Division Chief and was the leading behind-the-scenes architect of U.S. foreign
policy in the Middle East during the Cold War..|
A few days before Christmas, in 1959, Allen Dulles invited me to his office.
He was the director of central intelligence. After I spent ten years in Europe
being involved in American intelligence, I had returned to Washington, and had
joined the Central Intelligence Agency. Allen told me his conclusion that the
Soviet Union, after 1955, had redirected its principal strategic interests away
from the Stalin effort to take western Europe, and toward the Third World,
particularly towards the Middle East. He said that he expected a full effort
by the Soviet Union to establish itself physically in the Middle East. He said
that the CIA had done a very effective analysis of the vulnerability left in
that area by World War II. He proposed that I leave Europe, and go to the
Middle East and south Asia. to be responsible for our operations there.
I had a comparable experience in Europe in the ten years after the war, so I
found this an exciting assignment. Europe had become extremely stable after
the Warsaw Pact. I very enthusiastically went to the Middle East. For ten full
years, I was the head of the Middle East operations, starting in 1959. Allen's
analysis, detailed to me before Christmas, 1959, turned out to be the reality.
The Soviets did pull out all the stops in their effort to take over the Middle
East, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Suez Cannel, and the Arabian
peninsula. But in the end, they totally failed to achieve their objective.
Why do you think they failed?
The Soviets, like the United States, did not really understand the character of
Arab nationalism, and the deeply ingrained sense of independence following
years of colonial experience. They also failed, as we did, to put in full
perspective the impact of Islam on these new nations that were emerging in that
part of the world. The Russians failed very badly when they saw the creation
of Israel as essentially an instrument that they could play upon, because it
created a difference between the Arabs and the United States. The Russians
greatly underestimated Israel's determination to preserve their national
interest, and above all, to maintain access to the Indian Ocean and through the
Mediterranean to the rest of the world. And so, the 1967 war that the Soviets
rather foolishly provoked turned out to be an enormous disaster to the Soviet
Union. It created the conditions for Anwar Sadat to replace Gamal Nasser, and
it certainly destroyed the whole Soviet initiative in the Arabian peninsula,
the Red Sea, and the efforts to take Aden. So the Soviet effort failed. The
United States was clearly emerging as a greater power. The United States had
done more to increase its presence in the Middle East in carrying out its
containment policy, than the Soviets thought we would be able to do, given our
growing involvement in Asia--first, in Korea, and then later in Vietnam.
When you took over the assignment in the Middle East in 1959, how important
was Iraq in the general "great game" that was going on in the Middle East? Was
it a focal point of Soviet and American concern?
By 1959, Iraq was becoming important, because they had gone through one or two
revolutions. The conservative monarchy established there by the British had
fallen in a coup. Gamal Nassar was extremely active in the Ba'ath politics.
We recognized in the Ba'ath. They were probably opposed to Egyptian
nationalism, but we thought they were equally opposed to Soviet communism.
Aside from that, we had no clear U.S. policy in which Iraq was either central
or even very important. The Soviet effort in the Middle East tried to
penetrate the Fertile Crescent from Damascus, to Baghdad, toward the Gulf, and
through Egypt and the Suez Cannel to the Red Sea. So it was equally important
for them to get control in Baghdad. I think the U.S. policy was essentially
containment of Soviet efforts there--Baghdad was merely a piece on the
What about the Ba'ath Party?
In 1961 and 1962, we increased our interest in the Ba'ath--not to actively
support it--but politically and intellectually, we found the Ba'ath
interesting. We found it particularly active in Iraq. Our analysis of the
Ba'ath was that it was comparatively moderate at that time, and that the United
States could easily adjust to and support its policies. So we watched the
Ba'ath's long, slow preparation to take control. They planned to do it several
times, and postponed it.|
We were better informed on the 1963 coup in Baghdad than on any other major
event or change of government that took place in the whole region in those
years. But we did not identify a radical movement within the Ba'ath that
would, six months later, stage a kind of counter-coup, and replace the moderate
elements in the Ba'ath. That was our mistake--that surprised us.
And were you also surprised, as time went on in the 1960s, by the increased
violence of the Ba'ath Party? It eventually shifted from being a party of a
lot of intellectuals, to being a party of some intellectuals on top of a lot of
Quite clearly after Saddam Hussein took power, America slowly developed, not a
hostility, but enormous reservations about the ability of the Ba'ath to
constructively bring Iraq along. But during those years, the oil companies
continued to deal with Iraq, and there were a lot of American business
By the end of the 1960s, what had changed with regard to the U.S. attention
or interest in Iraq?
Within a year or two after the 1967 Six-Day War, our growing involvement in
Vietnam became apparent. About the time that President Nixon went to Moscow,
he conceived the idea of placing increased reliance in the region on Iran. On
the way back from Moscow, he stopped and, in effect, said to the Shah, "We are
looking to you to assume leadership in this whole region--what do you need?"
The Shah was very adept at exploiting that, and we became quite a major arms
supplier at that point. Our increasing involvement in Iran was part of the
effort to offset our growing problems in maintaining a presence in Europe and
in the Middle East, while we were so deeply engaged in Asia.
Around that time, Saddam made his trip to Moscow and signed a friendship
agreement. How significant was that? What do you think he was trying to
achieve, and what were the Soviets hoping to get out of that?
Saddam Hussein's trip to Moscow didn't impress us very much. By then, we had
sorted out that any Arab revolutionary who needed help inevitably got the
invitation to come to Moscow. All of them went, and in the end, nothing very
much came of this. They became temporary Soviet clients for arms and other
support in the Middle East, but we know that none of these lasted--at least
they've never lasted in the sense that the Soviets intended them to last. The
independence deeply ingrained in the Arab leaders, colored additionally by
Islam, makes the average Middle East leader very difficult for major foreign
powers to influence decisively.
Saddam was also hoping to develop his country quite rapidly. It seems like
he concluded that he wouldn't get the kind of technology that he needed from
the Soviets, and was actively looking for Western technology. Do you have any
thoughts on that?
Of course. We were all obviously impressed that the Iraqis, the Syrians and
the Lebanese were greatly ahead of the rest of their world in education, in
technology, and in development in general. So we thought that Saddam Hussein
might be brought along in that sense--showing increased interest in working
with United States, its instruments, its companies and its government, because
of the infatuation for modern technology. This was Saddam Hussein being
totally pragmatic. When he was interested in making a bigger and better
missile or a bomb, he wasn't interested in it to increase American influence in
the region. He was interested purely in increasing his own influence. So this
theme of independence comes up again and again, and is still today a very
prevalent characteristic of the Middle East.
If you wanted to bring Saddam along at that time, what would be the way to
At that time, the policy that we followed of trying to stabilize the area with
leadership in Teheran was probably a good policy. But it didn't work, because
we had underestimated the resistance to the Shah. When he was overthrown, we
didn't have a very good policy that we could put forth.
And that changed Saddam's role?
I think it did change Saddam's role. It made him more ambitious, since he had
the military force, the political influence. Saddam probably figured that he
benefited by the break in the Shah's relation with the United States. When the
Shah left Iran, this left him the opportunity to replace the Shah. There's no
doubt that, in that period, he worked quite hard with our diplomats, our
intelligence officers, and with our oil companies to strengthen the American
position in Iraq.
And were the Americans receptive to that?
I think many of them were. There were various business groups in the United
States that were dedicated to expanding our business interests. Some of the
American oil companies, more than others, made a major investment of time,
attention and money. Mobil Oil Company was very active during this period, in
the dialogue that was very much with Saddam Hussein and his top oil people.
Should America be trying to overthrow that regime today?
We should probably not be actively attempting to overthrow Saddam Hussein at
this point. We should be pursuing an almost equal dialogue with Iran, who is
showing signs of change. Iraq is under great pressures, and Saddam Hussein is
an aging ruler. As we go into the next century, the United States should stand
back a little bit, and conduct very active dialogues with Iran and Iraq. Both
of them are potentially dangerous with weapons of mass destruction, and could
disrupt the whole Middle East region again.
So, if he is a threat, why not try to overthrow him?
We don't really have the means to overthrow him without leaving the policy of
containment, in which, inherently, you don't go around attacking people or
shooting them, unless they've threatened you directly, as he did in Kuwait. It
isn't credible to try and overthrow Saddam Hussein, unless there is some
credibility in an announced change of policy towards the use of force. The
United States using force in the world today, including in Iraq, is not a very
good answer. We should be very laid-back, as we go into the next century. We
should have a growing dialogue with Saddam Hussein, and with the moderates in
Iran, and coordinate these very carefully with all of the other Arab leaders.
We should see if we can gradually move them together to end the current sharp
division and hostility that is present in Iran and Iraq.
To what extent has American policy toward Iraq become too personalized
towards Saddam Hussein?
When a government personalizes an attack on a leader like Saddam Hussein, in a
country like Iraq that is inherently quite nationalistic, and has attitudes
that are reinforced by its religion, then attacking the leader makes his task
of staying in power simpler. A quiet dialogue engaging other nationals is much
When was the end of Soviet attempts to gain a foothold in the Middle
If you had to fix a point when the when the Soviet influence was destroyed in
the Middle East, it would have to be the 1967 war. You remember that
Khrushchev made his famous statement that Israel was a bone in his throat.
That war was the turning point, but it was only one of many things that
happened. With Nasser's death, there was a shift of influence to the Shah, to
King Faisal in Saudi Arabia, and to Sadat in Cairo, which produced a change in
the environment in the Middle East. The Soviet position was significantly
downgraded. But it was the 1967 war that was the beginning of the end.
secrets of his life and leadership ·
photo album ·
the kurds' story
join the discussion ·
tapes & transcripts ·
Some Photographs Copyright FRONTLINE/Iraqi News Agency
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation