The Book that Should Be on President Bush's Reading List

News Abroad

Timothy Stewart-Winter is a Ph.D. Candidate in American history at the University of Chicago. His dissertation is on lesbian and gay politics in Chicago since the 1960s. He has taught an undergraduate course at the University of Chicago on "War, Gender, and Sexuality in 20th-Century America." He has an article forthcoming in Gender & History called "Not a Soldier, Not a Slacker: Conscientious Objectors and Male Citizenship in the United States during the Second World War."

"If we lose Iraq, we lose the Middle East." These words, which could have been spoken by a Republican member of Congress today, are in fact spoken by a character in Sam Greenlee's 1976 mass-market paperback novel Baghdad Blues. The novel's main character, Dave Burrell, is an African American from Chicago, a trained Arabic speaker, and part of the small enclave of American diplomats stationed in Baghdad during the July 1958 Iraqi revolution that brought Abdel-Karim Qassem to power.

Baghdad Blues, which I recently found in a used bookstore and bought for three dollars, deserves a place alongside Camus's The Stranger on President Bush's vacation reading list. The back cover describes the protagonist like this: "Dave Burrell is a young recruit officer in the U.S. Information Bureau who admires the rebels and secretly supports their views. His white colleagues, champions of the Iraqi government, are too busy drinking martinis and being 'liberal' to care." It is as if "Shaft" has been set down in Paul Bremer's Green Zone.

The United States did, in fact, in Greenlee's book as well as in real life, "lose Iraq" that summer of 1958: the American-supported Hashemite monarchy, installed in the aftermath of the longstanding British occupation, was overthrown by a military coup with strong popular support among Iraqis. This revolution worried the Eisenhower administration, which saw it as a signal of growing enthusiasm across the Middle East for the potent mixture of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialist views promoted by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The author's better-known 1969 novel, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, dealt with a black CIA agent who uses his spy training to start a revolution in the streets of Chicago and other U.S. cities. Greenlee was, like the main character in Baghdad Blues, a black Chicagoan who worked during the 1950s in the Middle East for the United States Information Agency (which becomes the book's "Bureau").

The book is at once a Cold War spy novel, a sendup of American diplomatic blundering, and a pointed brief for solidarity between black Americans and colonized peoples around the world. Burrell says this about his colleagues who work for the CIA: "They all want to be James Bond, are told to be Casper Milquetoast, and very often wind up being Walter Mitty, and sometimes the daydreams creep into their real lives."

The book's first theme is the deep-seated racism of white American diplomats, which Burrell finds applied just as casually to the Iraqis within whose society they have carved out an elite world of foreign diplomats and spies. During his Arabic language training in Arlington, Virginia, he finds that he cannot be served in the corner drugstore with his white colleagues. Instead, he takes a bus to the Department of State cafeteria in Washington. "I remember thinking as I passed the Lincoln Memorial," he observes, "that Virginia was quite a place to teach a nigger about Communist tyranny."

On the receiving end of an endless stream of racial slights, he is asked repeatedly to comment on diplomat Ralph Bunche and other accomplished black Americans. Even as they draw invidious distinctions between "desert" and "city" Arabs, Burrell's white colleagues claim that Arabs are too primitive to share their own white racial liberalism. Meanwhile, it turns out that his job within the American propaganda machine is not only to persuade Iraqis that King Faisal II is their friend, but also to downplay American racism, and thereby help win over the world's "non-aligned" peoples.

The second main theme of Baghdad Blues is the hypocrisy and paranoia of American Cold War policy. The overarching American fear in 1958 was that the Iraqi revolution was a harbinger not only of surging Arab nationalism, but of diminished American influence in the Middle East relative to the Soviets. A visiting American "cultural attaché," condemning the recent coup, declares, "The Reds intend strangling us, and they don't care how long it takes. If they can take and hold Iraq, with its large oil reserves, well… "

No matter, of course, that the Iraqi revolutionaries have shown no interest in Communism. This Cold Warrior views everything through a lens of a Manichean struggle between freedom and Communist-supported tyranny. With the Nasserite triumph in Iraq, this American sounds like Rick Santorum decrying "Islamo-fascism": "the Communists will at last have a foothold in this area. They could spread their influence to the surrounding countries: Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait. Mesopotamia has always been the keystone to the Middle East."

Greenlee was writing at a time, in the aftermath of the American adventure in Vietnam, when such "domino" theories had lost credibility among Americans. Yet a reading of Baghdad Blues in 2007 reminds us that events in the intervening years—notably, the founding of Al Qaeda on the late Cold War battleground of 1980s Afghanistan—have helped usher in a period with more similarities to the Cold War than we often acknowledge.

The name of Saddam Hussein, who was consolidating his power in Iraq in the mid-1970s, appears nowhere in the book, although a small African American press re-released the book in 1991, prompted by the first American war in the Persian Gulf, under the misleading title Baghdad Blues: The Revolution That Brought Saddam Hussein to Power. (This is a bit like calling the First World War the revolution that brought Hitler to power—true only if one takes a rather unusually long view of events.)

At the novel's conclusion, the small band of American diplomats is in retreat from a violent, chaotic Baghdad. "We drove across Queen Alwiyah Bridge, renamed Freedom Bridge," says Burrell, "and I looked at the low Tigris, almost as much sand showing between its banks as water. Upriver was the bridge where the bodies had been hung from the lampposts." Our present debacle in Iraq, one is reminded, takes shape neither on a blank slate, nor across a backdrop of ancient and simple sectarianism, but on a landscape scarred by more than a century of European and American involvement.

Greenlee gives his protagonist a perspective of the Iraqi landscape that is deeply shaped by the radical internationalism cultivated by an age of decolonization. Reporting on the Americans' surprise at the Iraqi coup, Burrell concludes, "Only a bunch of white folks, so hung-up on always being right about everything, so hung-up on themselves, could have been surprised about what had happened. The signs had been everywhere, and it really took talent to avoid them, to turn the facts into something entirely different."